Kim Otis

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–As President-elect Barack Obama mulls over potential Cabinet picks, women’s rights advocates are scrambling to make up for an unexpected shortage of cash to fund a push for female appointees.

"It’s late in the game but we’re really confident we’re going to do this," said Kim Otis, head of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, an umbrella group of women’s rights groups in Washington, D.C.

The council has for many years worked with the National Women’s Political Caucus to mount the Women’s Appointments Project, a public relations campaign to pressure incoming presidents to put women in executive posts.

But in an economically pinched year, funding has so far failed to arrive, a blow at a time when hopes for gender parity in government are higher than ever.

"We are continuing to seek funding," Otis said. "It’s such an important time for getting half the population to be represented in this new administration."

One major backer has been the Barbara Lee Family Foundation in Cambridge, Mass., a philanthropy that supports programs aimed at increasing women’s representation in politics, public policy and the news media.

But this year, Lee focused on electing–rather than appointing–women to office.

"It is my hope that President-elect Barack Obama is committed to diversity in his appointments, including women in key and visible administrative posts," she said.

Still Time to Secure Funding

Otis and other advocates have not given up; Obama was elected only a week ago, and there is still time to secure funding for the appointments project before he puts together his Cabinet and makes hires for other key administrative posts.

But they are preparing a Plan B in case they don’t get funding. She and other allies in the women’s rights movement plan to hash out their strategy at meetings over the next week.

"Money is not going to get in our way," said Ellie Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, a women’s rights lobby in Arlington, Va.

Smeal said women’s rights groups are more organized than ever and have new communications tools at their disposal. One possibility would be an online site that would collect recommendations from grassroots women’s activists around the country.

Otis’ organization, an umbrella group in Washington, has collaborated since 2000 with the National Women’s Political Caucus–a political action committee in Washington, D.C., that works to elect pro-choice women to political office–to oversee the project. Before that, the Women’s Caucus led the effort on its own.

The first appointments project came after the resignation of Richard Nixon, whose 31 Cabinet positions were all male, according to a history gathered by the two groups that oversee the project.

Project Re-Launched Every Four Years

Advocates have re-launched the project every four years since then.

President Clinton set the standing record by appointing 10 women to Cabinet-level positions during his two terms in office. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Attorney General Janet Reno held two of what are regarded as the Cabinet’s four most important posts: the department heads of State, Justice, Defense and Treasury.

President George W. Bush asked eight women to serve in his Cabinet, including Condoleezza Rice, the first African American woman to serve as secretary of state.

Progressive political journal In These Times published a list of Cabinet recommendations that was evenly divided among men and women this week.

Author and activist Rianne Eisler and Linda Basch, president of the National Council for Research on Women, a think tank in New York, have also put out calls for gender equity in government appointments.

"As you roll up your sleeves and consult your most trusted allies about creating a team to take this country into a more secure future, I ask you to keep something in mind: the interests of the women who played such a decisive part in your election," Basch wrote in an open letter to Obama published on the online news site AlterNet.

Women Came Through for Obama

On Election Day, 56 percent of women cast their ballots for Obama versus 49 percent of men, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey in New Brunswick.

Smeal is confident women’s advocates will have a receptive audience in Obama’s team.

Policy advisers such as Karen Kornbluh, who is advising Obama on women’s policy during the transition, "understand these issues from A to Z," Smeal said. "They’re brilliant and there’s a real commitment."

Obama has not yet made any nominations for the Cabinet.

Two prominent women under discussion for the Treasury Department are Republican Sheila Bair, chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which insures bank deposits up to $250,000; and Laura D’Andrea Tyson, who chaired the Council of Economic Advisers under President Clinton.

New York Sen. Hillary Clinton has been mentioned as a possible secretary of state.

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano and ex-Justice Department official Jamie Gorelick are reportedly under consideration to head up the Department of Justice.

News reports have also played up Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas as a possible head of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Media speculation about the next national security adviser has included the names of women such as Harvard professor Samantha Power and foreign policy expert Susan Rice. Rice and Caroline Kennedy, who headed up Obama’s vice presidential search, are also mentioned as possible ambassadors to the United Nations.

Apart from Rice and Napolitano, women on Obama’s economic and transition teams include long-time friend Valerie Jarrett; ex-Environmental Protection Agency chief Carol Browner; Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm; Ann Mulcahy, the chair and CEO of Xerox; and Penny Pritzker, CEO of Classic Residence by Hyatt. All of them could find work in the next administration.

At the top of a short list of names that many women’s rights advocates want removed is that of Larry Summers, the former president of Harvard University who resigned after suggesting that women were not as successful in math and science because of innate differences between the sexes. He is reportedly under consideration for treasury secretary.

"Women played a large role in getting Obama elected," said Bernice Sandler, a senior scholar at the Women’s Research and Education Institute in Washington, D.C., who is known as the Godmother of Title IX, the law guaranteeing equality to girls and women in sports and education. "It just would be a shame if one of his first major appointments was someone who said nasty things about women."

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews.