First woman cabinet secretary dates back to 1933
One hundred years after women got the vote, government gender barriers are still falling down. A trio of women would make history if President-Elect Joe Biden names them to lead the three cabinet departments — Treasury, Defense and Veterans Affairs — that have previously been headed only by men.
One is virtually certain, as Biden is expected to officially name former Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen as the first female Treasury Secretary. Former Undersecretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy is a top contender for Defense Secretary. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, is a potential candidate to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, although several men are also in the running.
In 2020, it’s about time to end the long-running era of female “firsts.” Yes, the first woman to hold an important government post deserves media attention. But we will be far better off when the seconds, thirds and beyond become a ho-hum matter. Nonetheless, there is excitement that President-Elect Biden plans to have a highly diverse presidential cabinet and staff that better represent America than the mostly white male cabinet of President Donald Trump.
On Sunday, Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris said their White House communications leadership team will be all-female. “I am proud to announce today the first senior White House communications team comprised entirely of women,” Biden said in a statement. The team includes Kate Bedingfield as White House communications director and Jen Psaki as White House press secretary.
Announcement of Yellen and other top economic and budget leaders is expected this week. Press reports suggest that Neera Tanden will be tapped as director of the Office of Management and Budget and Cecilia Rouse as chair of the Council of Economic Advisers — both would be the first women of color in those posts. If nominated and confirmed as the 78th Treasury Secretary, economist Yellen would continue her trailblazing career, which includes serving, from 2014 to 2018, as the first female chair of the Federal Reserve.
If selected as Biden’s Defense Secretary, Flournoy brings extensive government experience, having served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy under President Bill Clinton and Under Secretary of Defense for Policy under President Barack Obama. At Veterans Affairs, Duckworth would bring her personal medical experience as an Iraq War helicopter pilot who lost both legs in combat, as well as service as an assistant secretary at the VA during the Obama administration. Even if Biden offered her the post, it is unclear whether Duckworth would be willing to give up her Illinois Senate seat.
Biden has already named other women to top posts, including Avril Haines as the first woman director of national intelligence and Linda Thomas-Greenfield as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Happily, female American U.N. ambassadors are now commonplace — if confirmed, Thomas-Greenfield would be the seventh woman to hold that post.
The first presidential cabinet was formed in 1789, but it was not until 1933 that a female cabinet secretary was named. That year President Franklin Delano Roosevelt chose Frances Perkins as the fourth Secretary of Labor. Earlier, she was the first woman Industrial Commissioner under Roosevelt, when he was governor of New York. As Labor Secretary, Perkins was highly influential, helping to create many of the key New Deal programs, including the Social Security Act. Perkins served from 1933 to 1945 through all four of Roosevelt’s terms. In 1980, the Labor Department’s headquarters was named after her.
The top Labor post has since gone to six other women, more than any other department. In 2001, at the start of the George W. Bush Administration, Elaine Chao became the first Asian-American woman to serve in a presidential cabinet. She was succeeded as Labor Secretary in 2009, when President Obama named California congresswoman Hilda Solis to the post — the first Latina to serve in the cabinet. In 1977, Patricia Roberts Harris became the first female African-American cabinet member when President Jimmy Carter appointed her as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Health-related departments have also been favorable to women. In 1953, President Eisenhower named Oveta Culp Hobby as the first Secretary of the newly formed Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW). She was only the second woman to serve in a presidential cabinet. During World War II, Hobby was the first director of the U.S. Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (later the Women’s Army Corps or WAC).
In 1979, during the Carter Administration, HEW was subdivided into the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Education. Former HUD Secretary Patricia Roberts Harris bridged the two, serving as outgoing HEW Secretary and incoming HHS secretary. Four women subsequently became HHS Secretaries during the Reagan, Clinton, and Obama Administrations.
Among those touted as a possible Biden pick for HHS Secretary is New Mexico’s Democrat Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. Politico and Axios reported that members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus were lobbying Biden to pick Lujan Grisham. If selected, she would be the first Latina to head HHS.
At the Interior Department, Biden has the opportunity to name another New Mexico Democrat as the first Native American cabinet secretary. More than 50 House members urged Biden to name Rep. Deb Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna tribe. Interior has previously had two female heads.
The Department of Agriculture has had just one female secretary. But several women are on the short list to head Agriculture in the Biden cabinet, with former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, among the leading contenders. Two dozen groups, representing unions, women and children’s rights, recently wrote to Biden, urging Fudge’s selection. In Congress, Fudge has championed efforts to improve nutrition and fight hunger. If nominated and confirmed, she would be the first African American woman to head the Agriculture Department.
The cabinet-level Environmental Protection Agency has had four female administrators. The longtime chair of the California Air Resources Board, Mary Nichols, known for promoting tough state air pollution and climate regulations, is widely reported as a top candidate to be Biden’s EPA chief.
Although women have long been a minority in previous presidential cabinets, they have fared better in Democrat administrations than in Republican ones. According to Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics, a total of 54 women have held 61 cabinet-level posts, with seven women serving in two different positions. Of the 54, 31 were appointed by Democratic Presidents and 23 by Republican presidents.
A Univision analysis found that in recent Democrat Administrations, women made up 26 percent of Bill Clinton’s cabinet and 30 percent in Barack Obama’s. In contrast, in Republican administrations, women were 17 percent of George W. Bush’s cabinet and 18 percent of Trump’s. Four woman have cabinet-level posts in the Trump Administration: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao (former George W. Bush Labor Secretary), Central Intelligence Agency Director Gina Haspel (the first woman to lead the CIA), and Jovita Carranza, Small Business Administration administrator.
Biden’s cabinet-level nominees will of course need Senate confirmation. In the contentious political climate in Congress, many of them will undoubtedly face Republican opposition.