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As six women entered the field of Democratic presidential candidates in 2019, the political media rushed to declare 2020 a new "year of the woman." The excited tone projected by the media carried an air of inevitability: after Hillary Clinton lost in 2016, despite receiving 2.8 million more popular votes than her opponent, even more women were running for the presidency.
There is a reason, however, why historical inevitability has not yet been fully realized. While many were excited to see more than one woman featured in the presidential debates this cycle, the media's focus on this "broken milestone" masks the structural inequalities in our political system that heavily favor men at every level of government. Overwhelming evidence suggests that women continue to face an uphill battle in U.S. political life, and until we fix the rules of the game, the outcome will not change.
The following text, "Women and the Presidency," presents a complete history of women running for the highest executive offices, the structural barriers they faced, and our theory of change for rebalancing the equation. This text also appears in a new book, The Best Candidate: Presidential Nomination in Polarized Times (September 2020), which is now available for purchase.
After the President and Vice President, members of the President's Cabinet constitute some of the most powerful leaders in the United States. But since Cabinet positions are appointed and not elected, it is up to the President to ensure that their Cabinet is diverse and representative. While 15 countries currently meet or exceed gender parity on their Executive Cabinets, the United States is still far from achieving this goal. Appointing a gender-balanced cabinet is one of the fastest ways that the United States can achieve greater gender-based representation.
The below graph lists all women that have been appointed to Cabinet or Cabinet-level positions from FDR to Biden. There has been a steady increase over the past century, with a peak of 19 total women being appointed during Obama's presidency.
To learn more about the history of gender diversity in Presidential Cabinets, take a look through our timeline below.
After the governor, members of the governor's cabinet constitute some of the most powerful leaders at the state level in the United States. In nearly all states, the vast majority, if not all, of the cabinet members are appointed by the governor. In these states, the average state cabinet has a membership of less than 40% women. While 10 states currently meet or exceed gender parity on their cabinets, most states are still far from achieving this goal. Appointing a gender-balanced cabinet is one of the fastest ways that the states can achieve greater gender-based representation.
See below for a map of the gender make up of state cabinets.
Georgia, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Oregon, Texas
Illinois, Iowa, New York, Rhode Island, Wyoming
One way achieve gender balance is to elect more women as governors. In our analysis, women governors tended to be more mindful of gender equity: half of all women governors had gender balanced cabinets, compared to less than a quarter of men governors.
Note: Analysis excluded states without cabinets (5), where data was unavailable (5), and where all cabinet members were elected (1).
It’s been over a century since the 19th Amendment was passed, but the promise of equality has still not been met. While state cabinet positions often lack the press coverage and glamor of national office, the decisions made by people in these positions impact our daily lives. Over the next few decades, let’s ensure that women have an equal seat in the room where it happens.