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After a Century of Lobbying, Women Are Finally Getting Top Jobs in Washington

Instead of talking about “binders full of women,” the new president has appointed several key female leaders in the national security agencies—but the U.S. government is still a long way from gender parity.

Picture taken in January 1946 in London showing Eleanor Roosevelt attending a United Nations meeting.
Picture taken in January 1946 in London showing Eleanor Roosevelt attending a United Nations meeting. AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration is shaping up to be the most diverse in U.S. history. Women will fill half of the Cabinet-level jobs announced by the transition team, and though men still hold the main security portfolios—the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and State, the CIA, and the National and Principal Deputy National Security Advisor—the Biden team has made several historic appointments in foreign policy and security roles.

Avril Haines as the first female director of National Intelligence, Kathleen Hicks as the first female deputy secretary of defense, Linda Thomas-Greenfield as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power as United States Agency for International Development (USAID) administrator, as well as the women who account for more than half of the National Security Council’s senior personnel.

The Biden administration is shaping up to be the most diverse in U.S. history. Women will fill half of the Cabinet-level jobs announced by the transition team, and though men still hold the main security portfolios—the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and State, the CIA, and the National and Principal Deputy National Security Advisor—the Biden team has made several historic appointments in foreign policy and security roles.

Avril Haines as the first female director of National Intelligence, Kathleen Hicks as the first female deputy secretary of defense, Linda Thomas-Greenfield as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power as United States Agency for International Development (USAID) administrator, as well as the women who account for more than half of the National Security Council’s senior personnel.

With more than 200 Senate-confirmed senior roles in foreign policy and national security to be appointed once the administration is in the White House, numerous groups are working to ensure commitment to parity is maintained at all levels. The Leadership Coalition for Women in National Security (LCWINS) delivered a database of 850 women prepared to fill senior security and foreign policy roles to both campaigns back in September.

For at least a century, American women’s groups have collected and submitted names of women ready to take on policymaking roles in an effort to ensure their voices were heard on issues of international importance. In 2012, when presidential candidate Mitt Romney responded to a debate question about diversity by referring to his office’s “binders full of women,” the line quickly became a meme, spawning satirical office supplies and memorable Halloween costumes, but the strategy of supplying officials with rosters of women has an eminent heritage.

Lists compiled by women’s groups at the end of World Wars I and II show women have long been qualified women to fill foreign policy and security roles. What’s changed is not the availability of talent but increased public pressure and political will to appoint women, as well as a growing body of research that bolsters the claims made by earlier generations. Leaders and activists today correctly argue that nominating women to international posts is not only the right thing, but the smart thing to do; facing unprecedented global challenges, diversity in foreign-policy leadership is crucial to strengthening national security.


Lobbying efforts to appoint more women to international roles were already underway at the end of World War I, when American activists joined with international NGOs to submit a petition at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference urging that women “should be appointed to all the permanent commissions on the same terms as men.” The Council for the Representation of Women at the League of Nations and its constituent groups regularly submitted lists of women who could serve on committees and delegations—although their arguments rested on claims about maternal instincts and women’s peace-loving tendencies, arguing women were especially needed in “positions that would be suitable to their special abilities,” namely trafficking, child welfare, and “women’s issues.”

Inundated with nominations, many countries obliged by appointing one or two women, usually to the Fifth Committee, which governed social issues. Though few women reached leadership posts at the League, the presence of women delegates, experts, and staff did open a conduit for NGOs to push for women’s rights. U.S. women’s groups successfully used these relationships to raise issues like child marriage, equal nationality rights, and reporting on the status of women worldwide. 

As World War II drew to a close, women tried again to ensure their place in international policy. In late 1942, a group of women academics, activists, and NGO leaders created the Committee on the Participation of Women in Post War Planning (CPWPWP), to identify qualified women to serve in international roles. Their work got a critical boost in 1944 when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt hosted a day-long conference at the White House called: “How Women May Share in Post-War Policy Planning.”

Participants formalized a list of 260 names “qualified to serve in many and varied fields such as international law and relations”—culled from 750 submissions from across the country—which was sent to the president and the secretary of state. Conference chairwoman Charl Ormond Williams emphasized, “It is [our] profound hope that one or more qualified women […] be appointed to serve on all commissions looking toward the establishment of peaceful relations in this war-torn world.”

Unusual for its time, the CPWPWP included both white and Black women’s organizations. Mary McLeod Bethune—president of the National Council for Negro Women—submitted a list of Black women journalists, civic activists, attorneys, and doctors suited for policy-making posts, one of whom, Edith Sampson, would become the first Black U.S. delegate to the United Nations in 1950.

The only female U.S. delegate to the 1945 United Nations Charter Conference, Barnard College Dean Virginia Gildersleeve, credited the CPWPWP list in an interview: “I feel I was appointed because American women made a drive for representation and my name was on the roster they compiled.” Asked about the list by a Herald-Tribune reporter, Roosevelt responded, “Now no man can ever say he could not think of a woman qualified in a particular field.”

The post-World War II lobbyists expanded their arguments for representation beyond the maternal. Women’s participation, according to a 1943 CPWPWP pamphlet, was “both just and indispensable.” “A new world will call for new thinking,” it continued, and women’s unique perspectives would contribute invaluable expertise.


Echoing the CPWPWP’s call, successor groups have stressed that diversity brings creative solutions to global challenges. And considerable research now bears this out. Oft-cited studies from the business world indicate that companies with greater gender and ethnic diversity in corporate leadership consistently outperform companies with fewer women and people of color. In the realm of foreign policy and security, women’s representation also makes a difference. Though individual women do not necessarily make qualitatively different policy decisions than their male counterparts, in the aggregate, women’s participation in peace and security is correlated with better outcomes.

When women are signatories to peace agreements, those agreements have a higher likelihood of implementation. Globally, greater women’s political participation leads to a longer duration of peace, lower likelihood of civil war relapse, and fewer instances of human-rights abuses by the state. And their presence can mean that women’s concerns make it into law. Female cabinet officials have a significant effect on adopting policies that create friendlier work environments for women, and women in Congress are more likely to introduce foreign-policy legislation that targets women and girls. Likewise, female mayors are more likely to allocate city budgets to education, health care, and social issues.

Despite this growing evidence, security and foreign policy leadership has remained overwhelmingly male. At the Trump State Department, just 13 of the top 34 officials were women; under Obama, 14. At the Department of Defense, outgoing President Donald Trump appointed six women to the top 23 roles, and President Barack Obama only five. The persistently low numbers parallel what political scientists Karen Beckwith and Susan Franceschet have called term a “concrete floor.” Looking at cabinet posts in seven countries, they find the number of women appointed tends to become a norm across administrations, even as the number of cabinet positions and party of the president fluctuate.

In the current security landscape, facing immediate crises like COVID-19, women’s representation is even more acutely important. While evidence that women leaders have been more successful at curbing the spread of the coronavirus is tenuous, it is clear that traditionally masculine styles of leadership have only exacerbated the challenge.

Two new studies find that the more male respondents identify with masculine norms, the less likely they are to wear a protective mask, and a third finds that individuals who hold sexist beliefs are less likely to support government policies to curb the spread of COVID-19. Indeed, many of the countries with the highest COVID cases per capita—including the United States, the United Kingdom, Brazil, and Russia—have leaders who both embrace macho stereotypes, and at first openly flouted public health guidance. In the wake of a destabilizing global pandemic that has disproportionately affected women and girls, maintaining the status quo is no longer feasible.

During the primaries, incoming U.S. President Joe Biden signed a pledge that he would strive for gender parity in national security and foreign policy, which would significantly change the face of the field. If the Biden administration is serious about fulfilling this promise, it should have no trouble finding qualified women to fill these roles—there’s already a list.

Rebecca C. Turkington is a Gates Cambridge Scholar at the University of Cambridge. She previously worked on gender and foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security. Twitter: @rcturk

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