clock menu more-arrow no yes

Hillary Clinton plans to fill half of her Cabinet with women. Here's why that matters.

President Obama Campaigns With Hillary Clinton In Charlotte Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton plans to fill half of her Cabinet with women if she’s elected president, according to the New York Times.

Reporter Patrick Healy talked to a dozen Clinton campaign advisers and allies to get a sense of Clinton’s goals and strategies for her presidency. Healy’s sources told him that Clinton hopes this move would bring "a new tone and collaborative sensibility to Washington."

If she reached this goal, she would match Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who recently gave Canada its first gender-equal Cabinet — "because it’s 2015," as he put it then.

Clinton also floated the idea in April, when asked about Trudeau’s move on The Rachel Maddow Show. But the new report makes clear that it’s still a prominent part of her thinking.

And even just setting that intention is historic for a US president.

"We definitely don't have precedent for a president saying, ‘I’m going to appoint, or even try to appoint, women in half the Cabinet,’" said Kelly Dittmar, an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University Camden and scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP). "To my knowledge, Obama never did that, even though he obviously made some effort to increase the number of women in Cabinet or Cabinet-level appointments."

Gender parity in cabinets is rare

There have been just 30 female Cabinet secretaries in the United States since 1933, when Frances Perkins became the first female Cabinet member as the secretary of labor under Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

CAWP keeps track of how many women have served as both Cabinet secretaries and in other Cabinet-level positions. The organization keeps track of both the Cabinet positions, like the secretary of state, and the Cabinet-level positions, like the White House chief of staff. There are currently 16 Cabinet positions and seven Cabinet-level positions.

Until President Bill Clinton’s first term, Dittmar said, women always made up less than 20 percent of the Cabinet. Then women’s representation reached an all-time high of 41 percent during Clinton’s second term.

That fell to 19 percent in George W. Bush’s first term and rose slightly to 24 percent in his second.

The maximum number of women serving at any one time in President Obama’s Cabinet has been about 35 percent in his second term — eight women in a total of 23 Cabinet or Cabinet-level positions.

In addition to Canada’s, gender-equal cabinets do exist around the world; Chilean President Michelle Bachelet appointed one in 2006, and Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero did so in 2004 and 2008. Other countries have pledged to increase women’s representation in government, and research shows that more women are being appointed to more traditionally "masculine" or high-prestige roles.

But while these are encouraging signs, it’s still pretty rare to see a government with a gender-equal cabinet.

This fits with Clinton’s renewed focus on gender in this campaign

Appointing a gender-equal Cabinet isn’t the only way Clinton hopes to strike a new, more collaborative tone — and a more feminine leadership strategy. She also plans to abandon the tradition of doing business over sports like golf or basketball, and instead have personal conversations with her rivals and allies over drinks.

"She likes to cajole, she likes to make deals, and she likes to make friends," Richard Socarides, a former policy adviser to Bill Clinton, told Healy. "And she knows it’s much harder to go after someone who you basically like, who you’ve had a drink with."

The fact that Clinton is making all of this a priority makes a lot of sense given her current campaign strategy, Dittmar said. Clinton has been much more willing to speak openly about her gender and the historic nature of her candidacy than she was in 2008 — and that’s probably closer to how she herself feels about it.

"As someone who has been working for women's equality her whole life and talking about women's inclusion, this is more in line with the Hillary persona than it was in her 2008 campaign," Dittmar said.

We don’t have much research to indicate how gender parity in the US Cabinet would specifically affect policy. But we do have research suggesting that women often govern or legislate differently, focusing more on policy priorities that specifically affect women.

And we know that when more women attain higher office, it has a ripple effect that helps inspire more women to seek office down the line.

All of this means that a Hillary Clinton presidency could be a game changer for women’s representation in politics — through both the women she directly appoints and the women she indirectly inspires to run themselves.


How Clinton’s nomination could improve politics

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.