Can Kerry Fill Clinton’s Shoes?

Times have changed when the foreign policy world is wondering if a man can do a woman’s job.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

When I was in college studying politics, a senior male professor was my valued mentor. One piece of his advice, way back then, always stuck in my craw: Even if I wasn’t interested in professional sports, he urged, I should learn a bit about it and read the sports page in the paper every day. Why? So that I would be able to join in the male chitchat before the big meetings started.

I took his advice, for a while, and found that he was right: The big boys always did seem to talk about the football game before the meeting, and knowing something about sports gave me a way to join in. But it always felt forced, and a little risky, too — after all, what if I said something ignorant? But though it was uncomfortable, it was what I had to do to make a place for myself in what was still, in the early 1990s, mostly a man’s world.

As a younger scholar, I attended my share of meetings and conferences where I was the only woman in a room full of male experts. Although I saw more younger women entering graduate school, hoping to work in foreign policy and international affairs, not all of them made it out the other end of the pipeline. Too many female students and junior faculty I met were agonizing about whether they could afford to take time out for maternity leave before they got tenured. One older professor told me, when he learned I was pregnant, "A dissertation is a baby, too, you know." If that were true, then I produced three babies in three years (two delightful humans, one that "lives" on a shelf) — while getting and holding a full-time job at a think tank.

Now that the United States has had three women serve as secretary of state, the nomination of a man for the job seemed to many in the media to be a step backward. Even newly minted Secretary John Kerry joked this Monday morning that the big question facing the country was whether a man could actually run the State Department.

But as Clinton gave her final speech as secretary on Thursday, I looked around the room at the Council on Foreign Relations and noticed a real difference: The front row was occupied by CFR board members, including several women. The row I was in, on the side of the room, was all women — capped by Amb. Melanne Verveer, whose Office of Global Women’s Issues at the State Department Secretary Clinton elevated by establishing the first-ever ambassador-at-large for the issue, a position President Obama has now made permanent. Clinton spoke eloquently, as she has so often, of why empowering women and girls is not just a matter of equity. "The evidence is absolutely indisputable," she said, citing examples from Pakistan, Congo, and Mali. "If women and girls everywhere were treated as equal to men in rights, dignity, and opportunity, we would see political and economic progress everywhere." This simple argument, once seen as a feminist hobbyhorse, is now an accepted tenet of global development policy — in no small part because of Hillary Clinton herself.

But it was an exchange at the event’s conclusion that really brought home to me how much things have changed. CFR’s President Richard Haass made the requisite "wrap-up joke" at the end of the proceedings — but even he had to admit it was out of the normal vein: "Secretary Kerry," he said, "will have very large Manolo Blahniks to fill." Clinton responded laughingly, "That’s very good — did Susan [Haass’s wife] come up with that?"

Yes, times have changed for real when the president of the Council on Foreign Relations has to study the language of fashion footwear. But just as I sometimes slipped up discussing the ground-rule double, it’s clear that he’s got some more homework to do. Because as anyone who took a good look at the fantastic low black heels on the secretary’s feet Thursday afternoon would know, they were Prada.

Tamara Cofman Wittes is a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. @tcwittes

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