To date, the Biden-Harris administration has named 17 women to top posts, some of them firsts, many of them contingent on Senate confirmation. Heading in the direction of gender parity in hiring has been regarded as another “audacious” Biden move, a turning point in the country’s history. The opening note of this administration is meant to portend a feminist future, even if it is headed by a white man in his seventies. After a primary that raised hopes that “America would end up with a revolutionary person in the Oval Office,” columnist Monica Hesse wrote in The Washington Post, “[i]nstead, we’ll end up with Joe Biden,” but “he still can be a revolutionary” if his Cabinet consists of at least 50 percent women. It’s not clear if the equality bar is set that low—a perfect half, nothing more—after the highs of the primary, or if it was always so slight.
If your political aspirations are mainly about getting a seat at the table, these appointments may feel worth lauding. But they are in many ways symbolic gains, a point that even some of those who celebrate such symbolism can accept. Their takeaway is that girls will see these women in these jobs and realize “they can do that, too”—not that they will also have the means to do it or that it will necessarily improve many other women’s lives. It’s a regression to the kind of individualistic, girlboss feminism we have been trying to pull away from but that still has a powerful hold on those who posit a commitment to “gender equality” largely confined to who holds the power, not what they do with it.
We have yet to hear how, specifically, the first woman selected to head the Treasury Department or Defense would deliver something different from any or all of the men who preceded her. And there is nothing new in the symbolic being elevated over the reality of the daily lives of the people these powerful appointees are meant to serve.
Though this is precisely the kind of thing we were told to expect. “If I’m elected president, my Cabinet, my administration will look like the country, and I commit that I will, in fact, appoint a—pick a woman to be vice president,” Biden said at the February debate. You could call his phrasing glib, but he said what he meant: He would select a woman. There would be credentialing beyond that, but that wasn’t the point. This approach to the matter of parity was “deeply fucked up,” Amanda Litman, a Clinton 2016 campaign staffer, told The Atlantic, because it could open the door to disingenuous speculation that she was nominated “because she’s a lady, and not because she’s good at her job,” setting her up to fail. (After the 2016 campaign, Litman turned her attention to electing young progressives down-ballot.) The appearance of pandering behind this gesture was not improved when Biden followed it with a pledge to appoint a Black woman to the Supreme Court. All this was not an entirely original move, either. Biden wrote in an op-ed in June, “Across the board—from our classrooms to our courtrooms to the president’s Cabinet—we have to make sure that our leadership and our institutions actually look like America.” In the 1990s, Bill Clinton, too, promised a Cabinet that “looks like America.”
Women working in national security appear to have been at the forefront of pushing for gender parity in the executive branch. Biden was among the candidates to sign a pledge that half his national security positions would be held by women. An appeal in The New York Times from a founder of the Leadership Council for Women in National Security asked Biden to put a woman atop the defense department, pitched in part on women’s purported soft powers: “On average, women appear to have more collaborative leadership styles than men, and they’re also less likely than men to fall prey to judgment errors induced by overconfidence. Wouldn’t it be wiser to have more collaboration?”
These pledges shrink back into their appropriate historic register when seen in context of whom they seem to please most, and it’s a very small circle of people: women who want to work in Washington in an administration like Biden’s. The women the president-elect has chosen or is considering for national security roles, a former Obama administration official told The Hill, “all know each other. They have worked together for many, many years. They are all experienced and respectful.” These are not outsiders. If they are leaning in, they are leaning into themselves. While a Cabinet stacked with more women than ever before would reduce the number of (very revealing) photo ops showcasing conference tables featuring more men with the same name than women with any name, it’s not the “end of the boy’s club” some commentators hope for: It’s approving a few new memberships.