Zirpoli: More women needed in political leadership positions

The recent death of Janet Reno, the first women to hold the position of U.S. attorney general, reminded me of the scarcity of women in elected or appointed government offices. Reno died from complications related to Parkinson's disease on Nov. 7 at age 78, after seeing Hillary Clinton become the first woman nominated by a major U.S. political party to be president of the United States.

As stated by Carl Hulse of the New York Times, Reno's "years in that office placed her in the middle of some of the most divisive episodes of the [Bill] Clinton presidency. She held the job for eight years, the longest in that position for the past 150 years prior to her tenure."


Frances Perkins became the first female Cabinet member in 1933 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed her as secretary of labor. Elizabeth Dole was the first woman appointed to two Cabinet positions. Dole was secretary of transportation for President Ronald Reagan in 1983 and secretary of labor for President George H. W. Bush. She was also elected to the Senate from her home state of North Carolina.

At any given time in our nation's history there has never been more than four Cabinet positions held simultaneously by women. The three presidents who had four women in their Cabinets at some point during their administrations were President Bill Clinton, President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama.

So far, President-elect Donald Trump has nominated three women to join his Cabinet. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has been nominated to serve as ambassador to the United Nations. Haley is South Carolina's first female governor, as well as its first minority governor. She is the daughter of Indian immigrants. Betsy DeVos, Trump's second female appointment to his Cabinet, has been nominated to serve as his secretary of education. DeVos is the wife of Amway heir and billionaire Dick DeVos. She and her husband are noted for their advocacy of using public funds to support religious and other private schools in their home state of Michigan. And Elaine Chao, formerly secretary of labor under President George W. Bush and first Asian-American to serve in a Cabinet position, has been nominated by Trump to be his transportation secretary.

The first woman to serve as a U.S. senator was appointed, not elected. Sen. Rebecca Felton temporarily represented her home state of Georgia in 1922. According to David Parker, professor at Kennesaw State University, Felton was appointed to replace a senator who died in office. The governor of Georgia appointed Felton to hold the office until a special election could be held. Interestingly, the Georgia governor appointed Felton because he was interested in the Senate seat himself and did not want to appoint a man who might run against him.

According to the Center for Women and Politics, 14 of the women who served in the Senate were appointed — seven to succeed their husbands who died in office. Women replacing their husbands is a common occurrence in the history of Congress. In the House, Wikipedia notes, 38 widows have won their husbands' seats either by appointment or election.

The first woman to be elected to the Senate was Hattie Caraway in 1932. In the recent 2016 national elections, four new female senators, all Democrats, will join 17 other female senators for a total of 21 women in the new Senate. Sixteen are Democrats and five are Republicans. Sadly, women will make up only 21 out of 100 seats in a nation where women are a majority of the population.

In the House of Representatives, Republican Jeannette Rankin of Montana became the first woman to serve in 1917, and women now make up about 20 percent of the House, similar to the Senate. Nine new women were elected in 2016 to join the House in January 2017. Six are Democrats and three are Republicans.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is the first and only woman elected to the speaker of the House position. There has never been a woman majority leader in the Senate.

Hopefully, we will see many more women in leadership positions within the United States government in the years to come.

Tom Zirpoli writes from Westminster. He is professor and program coordinator of the Human Services Management graduate program at McDaniel College. Email him at