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A 50/50 cabinet? The rest of the world yawns

Hillary Clinton said she would try to have a cabinet with gender parity, which would be revolutionary for the U.S. For the rest of the world, not so much.

Hillary Clinton did not quite promise gender parity in her cabinet, but speaking to Rachel Maddow at MSNBC’s town hall Monday night, she came very close.

Asked if she would follow Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau’s vow, since consummated, that half his cabinet would be female, Clinton replied, “Well, I am going to have a cabinet that looks like America, and 50 percent of America is women, right?”

Clinton never got more definitive. Just as Maddow followed up, “So that’s a yes?” an audience member interrupted to change the subject to women in detention.

Two weeks ago, when Cosmopolitan posed the same question, Clinton was similarly supportive of the goal while careful not to commit to a quota: “That is certainly my goal. A very diverse Cabinet representing the talents and experience of the entire country. And since we are a 50-50 country, I would aim to have a 50-50 Cabinet.”

If Clinton meets her aim, it would far outpace the record so far, helping the U.S. catch up in another measure of gender equality in which it lags behind the world. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, the Barack Obama and Bill Clinton administrations have roughly comparable track records in appointing women to “cabinet or cabinet-level positions,” with Obama appointing 10 women over the course of his term and Clinton appointing 9.

Obama was criticized at the outset of his second term for filling Clinton and Hilda Solis’ positions as secretaries of state and labor with men. “Until you’ve seen what my overall team looks like, it’s premature to assume that somehow we’re going backwards. We’re not going backwards, we’re going forward,” he reassured reporters in January 2013.

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So far, “going forward” has meant basically keeping the previous Democratic administration’s status quo. At the peak of gender parity in the Obama administration, when the most female cabinet members were serving at the same time, women numbered 35 percent of those high-level positions. Bill Clinton’s high-water mark was 41 percent. George W. Bush’s administration never got above 24 percent, and his father’s representation of women in the cabinet stalled at 18 percent, identical to Reagan’s two terms.

Notwithstanding Franklin D. Roosevelt’s historic appointment of Frances Perkins as secretary of labor, progress in the cabinet stalled for decades. A total of three women served in the cabinet in the next eight presidential terms combined, from Truman through Nixon. (To be fair to the presidents of yore, the number of cabinet-level positions has grown over time.)

Outside of the United States, Justin Trudeau did not invent cabinet gender quotas, which have often been the most effective in ensuring the representation of women. Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland appointed a near-50-50 cabinet in 1986. In 2006, Chile’s first female president, Michelle Bachelet, declared her cabinet would be half female, and made it to 48 percent. A year later, Spain also instituted a gender quota for elected positions, and thanks to a strong women’s movement and presidential support, cabinet positions neared parity. 

All this helps explain why the U.S. ranks 29th in UN Women’s index of women in ministerial positions. Finland is first. Finland is almost always first.

In a study published in the Journal of Politics in 2012, academics Mona Lena Krook and Diana Z. O’Brien created a more sophisticated analysis of women’s cabinet representation that took into account whether a cabinet post was prestigious and whether it was traditionally associated with men or women, using data from 2007. Interestingly, the U.S. still ranked 29th. Finland ranked first. Again.

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CAWP’s count includes Obama naming the first female federal reserve chair, Janet Yellen, but not his appointment of two women to the Supreme Court. Another female member of that body, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, has suggested that half is not enough. While cheering the fact that, with Obama's two appointees, one third of the Supreme Court was female, Ginsburg remarked that people ask her when there will be enough women on the court, she often replies, "When there are nine.... People are shocked. But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.” It's half tongue-in-cheek, half a pointed statement about how we consider men in authority to be the normal state. 

All this gives Clinton's Democratic opponent Bernie Sanders a chance to run to her left on another issue: He can pledge that his cabinet will be 100 percent female. Ball's in your court, Sanders.