Who’s Going to be the Next Secretary of State?

By | Nov 13, 2012

The New York Times has revealed today that U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice is the White House’s top choice for Secretary of State in President Obama’s second term. Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, who was once thought to be a leading contender for the position that Hillary Clinton now occupies, is now being considered for Secretary of Defense.

The apparent inevitability of Rice’s nomination obscures the difficulty women once had securing top positions in the State Department. As a new Moment profile shows, although Madeleine Albright had also served as Ambassador to the UN in President Clinton’s first term, she was initially considered a “second-tier” candidate for Secretary of State:

Four years later, Clinton won reelection, and in November of 1996, an administration official leaked to the media that Albright was being considered for secretary of state as a “second-tier candidate” behind former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and then-Assistant Secretary of State for European and Canadian Affairs Richard Holbrooke. The news mobilized many prominent women—the “old girls network”—who thought Albright’s credentials were being snubbed, and they flooded the White House with calls on her behalf. Other women privately vouched for Albright. Then-U.S. Ambassador to Austria Swanee Hunt remembers the president asking her opinion on who should be the next secretary of state: “He named terrific people, and I said, ‘Mr. President, it’s no question—hands down, Madeleine Albright.’” First Lady Hillary Clinton—a fellow Wellesley alumna—also went to bat for Albright. As she recalls in her memoirs: “When Bill asked me about Madeleine, I told him there was nobody who had been more supportive of his policies and was as articulate and persuasive on the issues. I also added that her appointment would make many girls and women proud.”

Ann Lewis, White House director of communications under President Clinton, recalls that there were “murmurs” among men in the nation’s capital who thought a woman could not be secretary of state because male diplomats from other countries would be unwilling to work with a woman. “Wrapping it in, ‘Oh, those poor unenlightened people, they don’t understand’ is a really flimsy excuse,” Lewis says. “A friend of mine talked to Bill Clinton directly about it and he said to her, ‘Don’t worry, that’s a bunch of nervous guys.’ He knew quite well what was going on.” When Clinton did nominate Albright, he faced immediate criticism. He was accused of giving Albright the job to fulfill a diversity requirement and to appease women voters, who had supported the president’s re-election by a 16-point margin over Republican contender Bob Dole. As Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland wrote after Clinton announced the nomination: “Albright’s appointment [was] a litmus test of the president’s commitment to feminism, not to foreign policy accomplishments that would win him a larger place in history.”

Questions about Albright’s ability to perform lingered even after a unanimous Senate confirmation vote. “Of course it was a challenge for Madeleine,” says Nicholas Burns, a former spokesperson for the State Department. “Even in the 1990s—even today—you find people who doubt the ability of women to lead.” However, the resistance did not come from foreign male diplomats, as critics predicted. “The first thing Madeleine accomplished was to demonstrate that when you represent the United States of America, you are treated as the representative of the United States of America,” says Lewis. “There are no gender distinctions in this role.” Instead, reluctance to accept her came from American men. Says Albright: “I had been a carpool mother, or a friend of their wife’s, had done an awful lot on boards and being a staffer on the Hill, so they wondered how come I got to be secretary of state.” Although no one challenged her “in an official way,” she recalls encountering subtle gender bias. “Once, I was talking about some particular issue, and I said, ‘I feel like we need to do something.’ A couple of men looked at me and said, ‘Feel, what do you mean, you feel?’ They were making fun of that. Then I was having a meeting with a woman who was the foreign minister of Finland, and she’s sitting across the table from me and said, ‘I really feel like we need to deal with it that way,’ and the men on my side, you could see, they gave each other a look like, ‘Oh my God, what’s going on here?’”

When asked what was the greatest challenge she faced as a woman in her career, Albright says simply: “Proving it could be done.”

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