Now that Susan Rice has withdrawn her name from consideration to be President Obama’s next secretary of state, three white males stand as frontrunners to hold the top spots in Obama’s next Cabinet. The secretary of state’s job is now seen as John Kerry’s to lose, chief of staff Jack Lew is frequently mentioned as a likely replacement for Tim Geithner at Treasury, and Chuck Hagel is seen as Obama’s favorite for secretary of defense.
Yet the possibility of this white-male power trio has some suggesting that a woman should take the Defense slot instead of Hagel, and the odds of former undersecretary of defense Michèle Flournoy appear to be rising. “She would bring welcome diversity as the nation’s first female defense secretary,” the Post’s editorial board wrote in an op-ed critiquing a potential Hagel pick. Others see the number of women voters who flocked to Obama in the recent election “rais[ing] the pressure on him to do more than seriously consider a woman for the top job,” as a Democratic strategist told Buzzfeed’s Zeke Miller, who also spoke to Republicans about Flournoy’s likely easy path to confirmation.
Lest we forget, “her qualifications are impeccable,” writes Eleanor Clift at the Daily Beast. With degrees from Harvard and Oxford, a former post as the highest-ranking woman at the Pentagon, and think-tank chops as the founder of the Center for a New American Security, Flournoy is no mere token candidate.
But there’s something else the mother of three and former Clinton administration Defense Department official has going for her. As a woman, she would be in a unique position to deal with two of the thorniest issues the military faces regarding its personnel. For one, the armed forces have come under fire—even from the current secretary—for their handling of sexual abuse cases of women. In 2011, just 240 out of more than 3,000 reported sexual assaults in the military were prosecuted (the actual number of assaults is estimated to be far higher, at close to 19,000, as many incidents go unreported). Panetta called the lack of prosecutions an “outrage” and pledged to do a better job. But one has to wonder if a female secretary of defense might do more about the issue.
In addition, the Department of Defense is grappling with how much to allow women into combat roles, and a female secretary of defense would lend a unique perspective and credibility. In November, the American Civil Liberties Union and four servicewomen sued the Defense Department in an attempt to end a ban on women in combat. Women are already in the line of fire in today’s wars (they are “attached” rather than “assigned” to combat units), but their lack of official combat experience has the potential to hold back their careers.
The ACLU suit adds to other complaints about this issue. In May, two reservists filed a federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court, saying the exclusions on women had restricted their earnings, promotions and retirement benefits. The same month, Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D- N.Y.) introduced legislation that would encourage the “repeal of the Ground Combat Exclusion policy” for women in the armed forces. Around the same time, the Army began a gradual expansion of women into combat jobs, opening up as many as 14,000 that were previously off limits to women.
Finally, putting a woman into the top job could be a breakthrough for recruiting women into the armed forces. Even if the military is planning significant cuts, it should still want the largest talent pool possible for the ranks it does fill. In any field where there are real or perceived career limitations for half the population’s advancement, it is that much more difficult to attract the best and brightest. That’s in part why the Military Leadership Diversity Commission has recommended that the military rescind its policy against assigning women to ground combat units.
Of course, these reasons alone are not enough for the president to name Flournoy to lead the Defense Department. He must choose the person he believes is best for the job and would provide him the soundest counsel amid complex global situations in Iran, Syria and Afghanistan. Maybe that’s Hagel, maybe it’s Flournoy, or maybe it’s someone else. Choosing a woman must be a decision based on qualifications, not on tokenism. But if she does have all the right experience, Flournoy’s contributions as a female leader would go far further than just adding a diverse voice to cabinet meetings.
Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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