Hartmann on Escobar-Lemmon and Taylor-Robinson, 'Women in Presidential Cabinets: Power Players or Abundant Tokens?'

Maria C. Escobar-Lemmon, Michelle M. Taylor-Robinson
Susan M. Hartmann

Maria C. Escobar-Lemmon, Michelle M. Taylor-Robinson. Women in Presidential Cabinets: Power Players or Abundant Tokens? New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. 320 pp. $74.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-049142-0.

Reviewed by Susan M. Hartmann (The Ohio State University) Published on H-FedHist (May, 2017) Commissioned by Caryn E. Neumann

Political scientists Marie C. Escobar-Lemmon and Michelle M. Taylor-Robinson have produced a notable addition to the growing literature on women in politics and on the history of presidential cabinets. Women in Presidential Cabinets examines executive branches of governments in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, and the United States in the years from 1993 to 2011 to determine if there were significant differences between men and women in terms of cabinet selection and service. They analyzed data on 447 ministers, 110 of whom were women, and report that women’s percentage of cabinet posts during these years ranged from 18 percent in the United States to 35 percent in Chile. (The authors studied only complete administrations; thus for the United States their database covered the Clinton administration through the G. W. Bush administration. Under these two presidents, 14 of 77 cabinet appointments went to women). While these numbers reflected improvement from previous eras, women continued to be greatly underrepresented in cabinet posts. Yet, in most other respects, women in each of these countries were entering into cabinet posts, being treated, and experiencing success in the same ways and to the same degree that men were. This is the key argument of the book.

Readers interested in social science methodology will be drawn to the painstaking discussions of the kinds of data that the authors decided to examine and how they analyzed it. They explain why they studied these countries, describe the particular political institutions and practices of each one, and rationalize the kinds of information they collected for each of the 447 cabinet members. They examine the backgrounds and qualifications of these officials, the kinds of positions that women receive, the length of their tenure and manner of leaving, and (for the Latin American countries) their effectiveness in terms of success in getting legislation passed. They also look for any differences between initial cabinet appointments, which are often scrutinized in the media for diversity, and replacements. The authors found few differences between men and women in these areas, but they point out that the women who were being integrated into the highest levels of government were conforming to male norms. The women who succeeded had to “look like men” (p. 275). 

The authors did find some differences between women and men, in addition to the disparity in sheer numbers. As would be expected, women were overrepresented in stereotypically female policy posts--that is, those dealing with social welfare, education, health, culture, and the like. (This was true overall, but not for the United States, a difference that the authors do not try to explain.) Yet at the same time, women were also holding cabinet positions in areas such as defense, finance, and foreign relations. Other differences in terms of the kinds of posts women filled were country-specific, such as women’s underrepresentation in posts associated with the economy, business, and finance in Costa Rica. 

One finding of particular interest to historians of women in government is that very few female cabinet appointees had known ties to women’s organizations. The authors speculate that presidents avoided appointing such women because they did not want ministers who would advocate strongly for women or they did not want their administrations to be regarded as partial to women’s interests. North American readers might also be interested in the quota laws that exist in each of the four Latin American countries. While these laws do not apply to the composition of cabinets, they do help get more women into legislative seats, where they can acquire skills, contacts, and policy expertise that government ministers need.

Because of the study’s exclusive reliance on data that can be quantified, historians (though not political scientists) may find the book of limited appeal. The authors have not examined government records or conducted interviews, and considering whether women bring to their governing particular perspectives or practices based on their gender is beyond the scope of their investigation. Although a few cabinet members are mentioned to serve as examples, the book is devoid of historical actors or explanations of historical change. The authors do not ask why greater numbers of women began to serve in cabinets as more than tokens in the last few decades. They do, nonetheless, provide an impressive cross-national description of the women who joined the ranks of the political elite in recent decades.

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=49132

Citation: Susan M. Hartmann. Review of Escobar-Lemmon, Maria C.; Taylor-Robinson, Michelle M., Women in Presidential Cabinets: Power Players or Abundant Tokens?. H-FedHist, H-Net Reviews. May, 2017. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=49132

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