Breaking: There Are Women in the Obama Administration

There are more important foreign policy subjects to weigh in on, I know, and I’ll try to get to some of them today. But I thought I’d add a couple observations to Matthew Yglesias’ and Spencer Ackerman’s objections (via the New Atlanticist) to the National Interest cover depicting Hillary Clinton, Janet Napolitano and Susan Rice as “Obama’s Angels.”

First, while there is something a bit obvious to their reactions (Ackerman preemptively calls it “humorless”), that doesn’t necessarily make them wrong. But more than outrage, I think what will ultimately make the media stop going to this particular well is that it’s long since gone dry. The appeal of a novelty act, after all, lies primarily in its novelty. But portraying very accomplished women through shallow pop culture referents now has about the same comic value of having white grandmothers breakdance and rap in movies and sitcoms. Which is to say zero to none. (Although it is ironic that Ackerman referred to the third Angel as Cheryl Ladd, who replaced Farrah Fawcett, and not Kate Jackson, who was cast in the original lineup as the intelligent, substantive foil to Fawcett’s and Jaclyn Smith’s more glamorous, superficial characters.)

Second, while Yglesias points to the fact that Clinton is the third woman secretary of state of the last four, there’s an even broader trend here of heads of state, and not just American presidents, surrounded by very influential women. Condoleezza Rice and Karen Hughes with former President Bush come to mind, even if Rice was ultimately outmaneuvered by the Cheney wing in terms of policy implementation. French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s entourage of Rachida Dati and Rama Yade, as well as the noted influence of ex-wife Cecilia and current wife Carla, often drew the same Charlie’s Angels-type comparisons in his first year in office. And left out of the National Interest cover, but who could easily be included, are Samantha Powers (who, as a potential fill-in, might better correspond to Ackerman’s Cheryl Ladd reference), Michele Flournoy and Anne-Marie Slaughter.

What’s even more striking is the presence of these women in the national security sector (Sarkozy’s interior minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, while not a close political ally, was also defense minister under Jacques Chirac), and with a discourse that is light years away from the early feminist expectation that increased involvement of women in politics would bring traditionally “feminine” (i.e. consensual) qualities to statecraft. Although Condoleezza Rice was credited with moving the Bush foreign policy back from the unilateralist, militarist excesses of its first six years, Clinton, Susan Rice, Power and Slaughter are not known for shirking away from the “power” element of “smart power.”

A lot of that has to do with the skill sets and qualities rewarded in the political arena, as well as the need for women politicians to avoid being perceived as too “feminine,” which is unfortunately code for weak. And ultimately, women’s liberation means accepting that an individual woman’s political — and other — choices need not be limited or predetermined by her identity as a woman. But the question of who is going to bring those “consensual” approaches to government and diplomacy still seems worth pursuing, and would be a far more valuable exercise than observing that Hillary Clinton, Janet Napolitano and Susan Rice are, in fact, women in the employ of a man.

The whole thing also underlines the symbolic importance of the highest office of the land. I doubt we’d see the same analogy used to profile three high-ranking female cabinet officers if the president were herself a woman, too.