Word began circulating late last week that Donald Trump is expected to pick Washington state congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers as his nominee for Secretary of the Interior.
Almost immediately behind that rumor came speculation of which Republican House members might vie for her position as Republican Conference Chairman. The names coming forward, as cited in Politico, were not exactly from anyone’s power list of heavy-hitting House GOPers: Mimi Walters and Mia Love are still in their first terms in Congress; Susan Brooks and Doug Collins are in just their second.
It’s no coincidence that three of those potential candidates are women. McMorris Rodgers is the only woman among the eight leadership positions selected by House Republicans for 2017; Speaker Paul Ryan and his team understand the public perception problem if the female component drops to zero.
Indeed, the only man on that Politico list, Doug Collins, is the newly selected Conference Vice Chair—meaning that his ascension to Conference Chair would allow a woman to join the leadership team as Vice Chair.
All of which is just one window into a theme that is taking shape, in the shadow of more attention-grabbing issues relating to Trump’s incoming administration. That little-noticed emerging reality is this: women will have less of a role in public policymaking next year than has been the case in many years.
McMorris Rodgers, if confirmed, would be the fifth woman named to Trump’s 23-person cabinet, and there are few more expected, if any. All five are slated to head up offices that, it seems fair to say, are low on Trump’s priority list: The Departments of Interior, Transportation, and Education; the Small Business Administration; and the U.S. delegation to the United Nations.
Trump’s most important appointments can be sorted, roughly, into three areas: his own staff; the national security leadership; and the economic overseers. Nearly every appointment announced or rumored to date in all three realms are men.
As WGBH News security analyst Juliette Kayyem put it to me this weekend: Trump is taking the term “band of brothers” both seriously and literally.
Of perhaps most consequence is the lack of women in what is shaping up as Trump’s White House inner circle.
With campaign manager Kellyanne Conway slated to work for Trump’s outside political entity, and Ivanka Trump’s role likely limited by her role running his businesses, we have yet to see any women emerging as likely daily voices discussing issues with the next president.
Granted, previous presidents have kept heavily male-skewed company in the Oval Office. But Barack Obama has had Valerie Jarrett, Susan Rice and Jennifer Palmieri. George W. Bush had Karen Hughes, Harriett Miers and Condoleezza Rice. So far, the female appointee likely to get the most regular face time with Trump is Deputy National Security Advisor designate K.T. McFarland.
Another way to look at the overall status of women in Washington next year: McMorris Rodgers, as Interior Secretary, will likely be the highest woman in the order of presidential succession at ninth in line.
That’s not much of a step down from today, when Attorney General Loretta Lynch is the highest in succession at eighth. But—despite still being historically shut out of the positions of president, vice president, Senate pro tempore, Secretary of the Treasury, and Secretary of Defense—for most of the past quarter-century at least one woman has held the position of House Speaker, Secretary of State or Attorney General.
It certainly appears that Trump is doing roughly the same thing the House GOP is doing with its leadership team: filling up the important slots with men, and then pulling in a woman for the remaining slots to keep up appearances. His doing so will exacerbate the problem at other levels, where the male-dominated Republicans hold most of the power.
In the U.S. Senate, Republicans are already down to just five women, none of them in leadership positions or heading powerful committees.
As mentioned above, House Republicans are losing the only woman in their leadership; they are also losing the only woman chairing a committee in the current session, Candice Miller. Only 21 Republican women were elected to the coming 115th House session, which will drop to 20 when McMorris Rodgers leaves, and perhaps lower as Trump fills out more low-level slots.
Yes, there are more women Democrats in both chambers—but that party will have even less influence than the little they do now. Republicans will have less impetus to compromise across the aisle, now that the threat of a Democratic president’s veto will be removed.
And it’s worth noting that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the only top woman leader on Capitol Hill, may not stick around much longer after suffering the embarrassing defection of a third of her caucus in the vote returning her to that position.
But wait—there’s also bad news for women’s influence out in the states.
With New Hampshire’s Maggie Hassan heading to the Senate and South Carolina’s Nikki Haley nominated for United Nations Ambassador—and men winning 11 of 12 gubernatorial elections last month—the country will soon be down to just four women governors.
Those four, including Rhode Island’s Gina Raimondo, run states inhabited by a total of barely 11 million people, or three percent of the population.
Women’s numbers, and their positions of power, are also declining or remaining low in state legislatures and other state-level public offices.
Studies suggest that more women in political office leads to more compromise and more progress. It’s far too soon to speculate what the coming male dominance in government circles will really mean. All we can really say is that it’s an odd result of an election in which the most votes for president went to a woman for the first time.