A milestone for African Americans, but women’s wait continues

Biden’s choice of Lloyd Austin for Pentagon chief disappoints some backers of Michèle Flournoy

Retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin at the Queen Theater in Wilmington, Del., on Dec. 9 after being formally nominated to be Defense secretary by President-elect Joe Biden.  (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin at the Queen Theater in Wilmington, Del., on Dec. 9 after being formally nominated to be Defense secretary by President-elect Joe Biden. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Posted December 14, 2020 at 10:30am

Corrected 3:21 p.m. | I once had a source who was a trailblazing Black woman who had shattered more than her share of glass ceilings. After America elected President Barack Obama in 2008, she reminded me that selecting a Black man to occupy the Oval Office before a woman echoed the order in which we updated our Constitution.

In 1870, Black men gained the right to vote (largely in name only for most, thanks to the racism of Jim Crow) via the 15th Amendment, five full decades before women gained theirs via the 19th Amendment in 1920.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot this last week after President-elect Joe Biden introduced his choice for Defense secretary: Lloyd Austin, a retired four-star Army general who, if confirmed, will become the first person who isn’t a white man to lead the Pentagon.

Former Pentagon official Michèle Flournoy, considered the odds-on favorite to be Hillary Clinton’s choice for Defense secretary had she had won in 2016, was also a top contender. But ultimately, Biden decided to go with Austin, with whom he had worked closely as vice president.

As a middle-aged white dude, perhaps I’m not in the best position to weigh in on whether Biden broke the Defense secretary barrier in the most effective, resonant way. But when I scan the portraits of Defense Department leaders lining the walls of the Pentagon’s exclusive E-ring, my demographic is almost exclusively represented, and that needs to change.

As the rise of the #MeToo and #BLM movements have demonstrated, misogyny and racism continue to plague America, and this high-profile nomination represents an opportunity to make some desperately needed progress.

“The president-elect has been really clear about what he wanted to do in his administration, which is reflect America. That’s worthy. I think all of us, regardless of our background, can support that,” Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley says. A former ambassador to Malta who also held positions in the Defense Department and the National Security Council, Abercrombie-Winstanley co-founded the Leadership Council for Women in National Security, or LCWINS for short.

During the 2020 presidential campaign, LCWINS secured pledges to seek gender parity in national security positions from most of the contenders for the Democratic nomination, including Biden. Women, after all, are just over half the population, and a woman has never served either as Defense secretary or a member of the Joint Chiefs.

At the same time, people of color disproportionately serve in the military, making up 43 percent of active-duty troops, according to a recent article in The New York Times. If confirmed, Austin would join Colin Powell, the first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs, in making Pentagon history.

In another first, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. recently became the first African American officer to lead a military service. But before we applaud the military’s racial strides, it’s important to note he is one of just two Black four-star officers out of 43.

For Abercrombie-Winstanley, framing the issue as a choice between a woman or person of color wrongly implies that it is an either/or decision, and unfairly pits against each other two groups that have been historically underrepresented at the top levels of government.

“As a woman, and as a Black woman, I don’t even want to have this conversation,” she says.

It’s more important, she adds, that the streak of white men running the Pentagon is coming to an end.

“The point is that it shouldn’t be a door that only one type of American gets to walk through,” she says. “The sooner we get through these firsts, the sooner we can just be looking at people’s qualifications.”

Rosa Brooks, who worked for Flournoy at the Pentagon and is now a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, admitted that she is slightly disappointed with the lack of women, with a few notable exceptions, tapped so far for key national security roles in the next administration.

“There’s this deep bench of women who have already been in pretty senior positions who are ready to be in top positions,” says Brooks, who is also an LCWINS co-founder.

The issue is not a binary choice between white women and males of color, either, she says.

“You don’t have to look that hard to find fantastic African American women, fantastic Latina women, fantastic Asian American women. There are a lot of them now,” Brooks says.

Mieke Eoyang, a former Hill staffer who heads the national security program at the center-left think tank Third Way, says that the concepts of warrior and masculinity are deeply intertwined, culturally and psychologically. The Defense Department has only recently allowed women to serve in combat, and combat experience is often seen as a prerequisite for advancement to leadership roles.

“We are at an inflection point in American history where the generation of women who were those front-runners into the combat arms positions are at a point in their careers where they are experienced enough and senior enough to be the strategic leaders,” says Eoyang, who serves on the LCWINS executive committee.

Recent history suggests that Biden may have another opportunity to make history at the Pentagon.

The last Defense secretary to serve more than two years was Robert Gates, who straddled the Bush and Obama administrations from 2006 to 2011. The last Defense secretary who remained in office for an entire presidential term was Donald Rumsfeld under George W. Bush.

That may be of little consolation right now to those who feel it is long past time for a woman to run the Defense Department.

“There’s a little bit of a feeling of, once again, to get to the tippy top positions,” Brooks says, “women are being told, wait a little longer, you’re not quite ready.”

An earlier version of this report misstated the country where Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley served as U.S. ambassador.

Andrew Clevenger covers defense for CQ Roll Call. Contact him at andrewclevenger@cqrollcall.com and follow him on Twitter @andclev.