In the wake of Susan Rice’s nomination for Secretary of State being replaced with Senator John Kerry and the selection of former Senator Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense in the place of Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy, there’s the beginnings of a discussion in the US about why there’s so few women (and less frequently mentioned, people of color) in high level cabinet positions in the Obama Administration. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that we’re willing to acknowledge the causes for this and instead lay the blame at the administration’s feet.
There’s much to be said about how fundamentally flawed this narrative is. Others have excellently point out that “feminism is more than a headcount” and that taking a bold stance against oppressive narratives requires something more profound than advancing marginalized groups into positions of social and political prominence. After all, Obama’s elections didn’t end racism. Clinton’s candidacy for the same position and tenure as Secretary of State likewise didn’t solve sexism. Keith Ellison’s and Andre Carson’s role in Congress hasn’t erased islamophobia. The glass ceiling hurts, but it’s not the entire problem. It’s more the tip of the iceberg that’s most obvious from the outside.
Beyond that necessary stipulation, it’s worth noting that the Obama administration has advanced the cause of representation of marginalized groups in many profound ways, including serious consideration of transgender applicants for various positions. That’s a group that has been incredibly overlooked by past administrations which the Obama Administration has opened its doors to.
But even after pointing out both of those issues, even Obama’s most hardcore supporters have to admit that the highest echelons of power, even under his leadership, are very White, very male, very straight, and extremely cisgender. The problem of course, is that this is expressed as being his fault or more broadly an impact of his administration. Even a quick examination of comparatively powerful women, people of color, and especially women of color that his administration has sought to advance should disabuse anyone of that notion, however.
Yes, there are too few women in his cabinet and in leadership positions elsewhere in the government, but that’s because of fabricated accusations against former Rural Development director Shirley Sherrod that she was withholding resources from White farmers, conspiracy theories against Attorney General Eric Holder that he was providing arms to criminal people of color, a firm belief that US ambassador to the UN Susan Rice is covering up something about the assassination of a White man in Benghazi, and an interpretation of one of Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s comments about racism as evidence that she would “discriminate against White people“. Those incidents were pretexts to force the firing of Sherrod, to hold of Holder in contempt of congress, to explain the denial of a higher position to Rice, and to legitimize a campaign against Sotomayor’s nomination.
In the context of those and similar incidents, it’s small wonder why the current government is having a hard time placing many women, people of color, and other marginalized people in positions of power – because their capacity to fulfill the duties of those positions is categorically doubted by Republicans in Congress, who’ve opposed their nominations to, advancements within, or continuations of high level service to the government. You want to hold some one responsible for underrepresenation in Obama’s cabinet? Let’s start with the people who are trying to systemically deny positions to people based on bigotries against their race, gender, and other factors.