Campaign Promises, the Cabinet, and Representing America

Last spring, during the primaries, Hillary Clinton declared, “I am going to have a cabinet that looks like America and 50 percent of American is women, right?” Political commentators responded with lists of likely women cabinet secretaries … and then attention shifted back to campaigning. Governing was a lost priority.

Six months later, approaching the election, the presidential transition, and the inauguration, we need to return to that earlier conversation. What does it mean, that a cabinet “looks like America”?

We need to begin by considering the international context. In November 2015, the newly elected Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, introduced his first cabinet to the media, saying, “It’s important to be here before you today to present to Canada a cabinet that looks like Canada.” In addition to gender parity, Trudeau’s 31-member cabinet was diversified by race, ethnicity, religion, and country of origin, among other facets of identity and experience. The cabinet portrait appeared in wide range of media outlets, conveying a profound message about Canada’s commitment to political diversity and representation.

Looking beyond the Canadian case to ask whether women chief executives build more inclusive cabinets, Mona Lee Krook and Diana Z. O’Brien’s found “no relationship between female chief executives and women’s cabinet appointments.” Krook and O’Brien concluded, instead, that societal attitudes about women in power, formal and informal governmental structures, and partisan ideologies were more influential.

Given this data, it seems likely that Clinton will be able to keep her promise if she wins the Oval Office. She has recruited women to serve in government posts in the White House, the State Department, and the U.S. Senate. Though partisan polarization will complicate the confirmation process, Clinton was a successful negotiator throughout her legislative career. A moderate Democrat, Clinton has highlighted her commitment to women’s equality; gender parity would amplify this message, as it did for Prime Minister Trudeau. The greatest challenge to a gender parity may lie outside the Beltway, with the U.S. electorate.

Cabinet of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (including Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins)
Cabinet of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (including Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins)

Is the United States electorate prepared to see a woman president joined by a cabinet that is half women? Does the electorate want to see the diversity of the United States re-presented among its most senior executives? The 2016 election has revealed that the electorate is deeply divided on issues of immigration, women’s rights, and religious freedom. Can cabinet nominations forge the alliances needed to take Clinton’s mantra, “Stronger Together,” from campaign slogan to governing commitment?

Some answers are found in the three recent presidential cabinet appointments. Candidate Bill Clinton promised “a cabinet that looks more like America,” a qualified precursor to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 commitment, and President William J. Clinton appointed more white women and more people of color than prior administrations. This included naming women to the inner cabinet – a term that refers to the secretaries of state, treasury, and defense, and the attorney general. The George W. Bush and Barack H. Obama administrations also diversified the cabinet until many departments had been led at least once by either a person of color or a white woman.

See the table below for a summary listing of these appointments, with the departments in order of presidential succession.

Still, no woman has served as secretary of the treasury, of defense, or of veterans affairs. In the past three administrations, no woman has served as secretary of housing and urban development; two women held this position in earlier presidencies, Carla Anderson Hills in the Ford administration and Patricia Roberts Harris in the Carter administration.

Examining where people of color and white women have served as department secretaries in the Clinton, G.W. Bush, and Obama administrations reveals the following:

  • 19 women were cabinet secretaries in the three administrations.
  • 13 women have served as department secretaries in Democratic administrations and 6 in Republican administrations. However, there are two two-term Democratic administrations in this sample and one two-term Republican administration, suggesting that the partisan distribution is relatively constant.
  • Women cabinet secretaries have been Asian American (1), Latina (1), African American (4) and white (13). Two African American women have served in the inner cabinet, Condoleezza Rice (as secretary of state) and Loretta Lynch (as attorney general).
  • 25 men of color have been appointed to 27 cabinet secretary posts in the three administrations – Federico F. Peña and Norman Y. Mineta have each led two different departments.
  • 19 men of color have served as department secretaries in Democratic administrations, 8 in Republican administrations. Again, allowing for the greater number of Democratic presidential terms in the sample, the partisan distribution is relatively constant.
  • Men of color cabinet secretaries have been Asian American (4), Latino (9), and African American (11), with an additional secretary identifying as Puerto Rican and African American. Two African American men (Colin Powell, State; Eric Holder, Justice) and one Latino (Alberto Gonzalez, Justice) have served in the inner cabinet.
  • 48 white men have been appointed to 49 cabinet secretary posts in the three administrations. Robert Gates served as defense secretary in the G.W. Bush and the Obama administrations.
  • 29 appointments of white men as department secretaries were made in Democratic administrations, 20 in Republican administrations. Fifteen of these Democratic appointments were to the inner cabinet. Six of these 20 Republican appointments were to the inner cabinet. The Republican administration appointed proportionately more white men than did the Democratic administrations.

Thus, the more conservative administration appointed more white men as cabinet secretaries. Across all three administrations, more white women than women of color were appointed. Among people of color, men outnumbered women in each racial or ethnic demographic category, though the number of women (three) and men (two) serving in the inner cabinet was similarly low.

There are three lessons to be drawn from this data for Hillary Clinton’s campaign promise-keeping.

First, people of color and white women have led a diverse array of executive departments, with the notable exception of treasury, defense, and veterans affairs departments. If Clinton does nominate a gender-parity cabinet, there are bipartisan precedents for doing so.

Second, the women listed above differ in their professions, partisanship, and identities. They and their male peers provide correspondingly diverse descriptive, substantive, and symbolic representation. Acknowledging diversity among women will be an important element of the cabinet selection process, especially for a white woman president seeking to build coalitions among women historically divided by race, ethnicity, class, religion, age, and sexuality.

Third, the department secretaries, as a group, already “look like America.” White women are still gender outsiders in the executive branch, as they are in many elite institutions; women of color are gender-race outsiders, as they are in many elite institutions. There are, for example, only a few women in the defense-secretary pipeline. And the majority of those women – security studies scholars, governors in defense-oriented states, Senate Armed Services Committee members, the Defense Department subcabinet– are white. Appointments of department secretaries, especially to the inner cabinet departments, could remain exclusive of white women and of women of color.

Will the next cabinet “look like America” because it excludes people of color and white women? Or will the next cabinet “look like America” because it facilitates access to power for people of color and white women? Answering these questions will begin to respond to the electorate’s concerns about substantive and symbolic representation. These are the conversations we desperately need to hear and consider, as we remember that elections are about governing as well as campaigning.


MaryAnne Borrelli is a professor of Government at Connecticut College. Her most recent book is a volume, co-edited with Janet M. Martin, titled The Gendered Executive, A Comparative Analysis of Presidents, Prime Ministers, and Chief Executives (Temple University Press, 2016), which brings together scholars in comparative and U.S. politics to examine the workings of gender in executive politics.