July 27, 2020

Positions in the federal government never held by women

By Paul Hitlin

August 18, 2020, will mark the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution granting women the right to vote. While this conferred a decisive role for women at the ballot box, it has not yet opened all doors for them to participate in every element of the federal government.

Women have filled many essential jobs, yet there are still important leadership positions that have never been held by a woman. For example, not only has no president or vice president been female, but three Cabinet agencies have never had a woman secretary: the departments of the Treasury, Defense and Veterans Affairs.

The following are 12 important positions in the federal government that have never been filled by a woman.

  1. President – None of the 44 individuals who served as president have been women. Hillary Clinton was the first woman to be nominated by a major political party in 2016.
  2. Vice president – Only two vice presidential nominees of major political parties have been women: Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Sarah Palin in 2008. Presidential candidate Joe Biden has announced he will select a woman to be his running mate in 2020.
  3. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Twenty men and no women have filled the most senior position in the U.S. armed forces since its creation in 1949.
  4. Chief Justice of Supreme Court Only four justices in the 230-year history of the Supreme Court have been women, and none have been appointed chief justice.
  5. Chief of Staff to the President – Since President Harry Truman appointed the first chief of staff in 1946 – called the assistant to the president at the time – none of the 29 people to hold this position have been women.
  6. Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation – The first leader of the FBI was appointed in 1908, and none of the 20 directors (including those in an acting capacity) have been women.
  7. Director of National Intelligence – All six people to hold the Cabinet-level position since it was created in 2004 have been men.
  8. Director of the National Security Agency – Women have never held the highest-ranking position in the NSA since the intelligence agency was founded in 1952.
  9. Secretary of Defense The Department of Defense has never been led by a woman since its inception in 1947. No woman has been confirmed to be deputy secretary of defense either, although Christine Fox was named acting deputy secretary in 2013.
  10. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton was the first in this position in 1789, and none of the 76 secretaries who followed have been women.
  11. Secretary of Veterans Affairs The Department of Veterans Affairs was formed in 1989, and all 10 of the Senate-confirmed officials who led the agency have been men.  
  12. Senate Majority Leader No Senate majority leader has been female since that role was created in 1925. In fact, no Senate minority leader has been a woman during that period either.

This list is not exhaustive. Other important positions such as the NASA administrator and secretary of the Army also have not been held by a woman. Some positions have only had a woman official recently. For example, Gina Haspel became the first female director of the CIA when she was confirmed in 2018.

As the country prepares to mark the centennial of the 19th Amendment, women who have served as leaders of our democracy deserve recognition and appreciation. At the same time, their absence from key positions in government, and thus from critical conversations in domestic and foreign policy, is worth highlighting.

Extensive research indicates diverse and inclusive teams produce better outcomes, and that well-qualified women are ready to lead. While the last 100 years has witnessed some progress, more work needs to be done to ensure the top levels of our government resembles the country it serves. To learn more about the role women have played in national security, listen to our Transition Lab podcast.