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A Few Good Women

In the Democratic primaries, Barack Obama first distinguished himself in the area of foreign policy; criticizing an atrophied approach to international affairs in both parties, he promised a new approach to diplomacy and national security. As the country waits impatiently for inauguration day, his appointments in those areas indicate that change is indeed on the agenda: In a major adjustment for the realms of foreign policy and national security, his new approach will be led by women.

In fields long dominated by men, a group of female politicians, academics, and policy wonks form the backbone of the Obama administration. Of appointments already designated, the top posts in the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security, both cabinet-level positions, are Hillary Clinton and Janet Napolitano, respectively; our new ambassador to the United Nations will be Susan Rice; and the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, the number three position in the Department of Defense, is said to be reserved for Michele Flournoy. For perspective, in the 318 total years those positions have been occupied, women have held them for 16. Or to put it another way, if these women each serve for a single term, they will match the entire combined tenure of women in these positions in the history of the country.

These appointments have garnered little criticism in large part because each appointee is so obviously--indeed, overwhelmingly--qualified. These are not token appointments, but rather a collective reflection of a recent and unprecedented ascendancy of women in these fields. Government positions dealing with war-fighting, tough negotiations, and security have for too long been off limits to women, due to prejudice and stereotypes, as well as structural impediments such as military restrictions against women serving in combat positions, a common path for upward mobility in these fields. But despite these long-lasting barriers, no one now questions the toughness or capabilities of these women. That these appointments have been met by a collective public yawn is itself a remarkable development.

And those are merely the top positions, and ones that are already filled. Burgeoning security superstars Samantha Power and Sarah Sewall are advising the transition on related matters and will likely have significant roles. From the political world, Jane Harman, the former ranking member on the House intelligence committee, has also received attention for her expertise and abilities in these areas as well, and is reportedly under consideration for a top intelligence post. The number of prominent women in this area, and the breadth of their presence--whether in politics, academia, the think tank world, or as civil servants--reveals a fundamental upheaval within the old boys club, rather than a set of outlier promotions. And the depth of their presence in these fields indicates this development is here to stay. Beyond the big names, a phalanx of "next generation" women in foreign policy and security are set to rise through the ranks. Obama’s high-profile appointments have the potential to allow for advancement of women in the pipeline who might have otherwise been shut out, as well as providing a strong example for others considering similar careers.

The diversity of their paths to power is also an encouraging sign of future egalitarianism in the national security establishment. At least a few of the major players, including Rice, Power, and Sewall, studied issues and areas that were not traditionally perceived as primary in national security, such as conflict resolution, failed states, and post-conflict management. Rice, for example, is an Africa expert succeeding a long line of predecessors who were mostly students of the Cold War and of European politics. Sewall and Power have devoted great energy to humanitarian issues, with Power’s rise to prominence sparked by her Pulitzer-winning book on genocide. Under a Cold War model, these focuses might not have been paths to prominence; but in an era of international terrorism, counter-insurgency, and failed states as a major security problem, they are vital areas of expertise.

Other women, though, took traditional paths up through politics, academia, and think tanks, working their way through the networks of old white men who have long dominated these areas. And even those who took a less conventional route hardly lack immersion in traditional “hard power” topics: Sewall is an expert in military operations and counterinsurgency, having authored the introduction to the 2007 Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, and the experiences of Rice and Power in conflict zones may give them a better sense of the realities of war than the old Sovietologists ever had.

Obama's appointments are an extremely positive indication of the direction of his administration--not only for women, but for capable management and thought in vital areas of policy. The combination of generational change, different perspectives and backgrounds, and solidification of opportunity for people who have been shut out of these areas is good news for all of us. Best of all, this is just the beginning.

A.J. Rossmiller is a Fellow at the National Security Network and a former intelligence officer with the Defense Intelligence Agency.