Ex-Clinton aide: Photo of Obama’s all-male inner circle suggested ‘women don’t belong’

Rachel Rose Hartman
The Ticket

Melanne Verveer, Hillary Clinton's longtime confidante and former chief of staff, isn't defending a picture of President Barack Obama's all-male inner circle. To her, it naturally begs a question: "Where are the women?"

Verveer, the first ambassador of the State Department office for Global Women’s Issues and now executive director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, also didn't criticize the reaction that followed an early January New York Times story topped with a photograph of Obama facing 10 male top advisers.

"Well, you heard the reaction—it reverberated across the country," Verveer said in an interview with Yahoo News. "Any woman looking at that, what was the message to her? Well, 'women don’t belong.'"

She added, "There’s the old story of the photo says far more than a thousand words, and I think that the reaction was one that is well documented, which is: Where are the women?"

The picture of Obama's inner circle was published at a time when the president was working to fill multiple top positions in his administration at the start of his second term, and he had appointed only white men such as John Kerry (State), Chuck Hagel (Defense) and John Brennan (CIA) to the highest roles.

The White House argued the picture was simply that—a photo—and was not an accurate representation of gender among White House staff. The administration also argued that the reaction was not warranted. "These stories are in reaction to a couple of appointments," White House press secretary Jay Carney said at a briefing Jan. 9, the day after the Times piece was published.

Since then, more appointments have been made, including REI CEO Sally Jewell to head up Interior; Tom Perez, assistant attorney general for civil rights, to lead Labor, Julia Pierson to head up the Secret Service and others who were not white men.

Verveer, who has worked with Clinton since her time as first lady, said that "obviously" the administration has since "worked to rectify" the situation.

[Click to read more on Verveer's thoughts about Hillary Clinton and 2016.]

Criticism of the administration's gender attitudes reappeared in the news this week after Obama called California Attorney General Kamala Harris the "best-looking attorney general."

On Friday, the White House confirmed that Obama called Harris to apologize for causing a "distraction" with his comments.

"He fully recognizes the challenges women continue to face in the workplace and that they should not be judged based on appearance," Carney said of the president during Friday's briefing.

Verveer declined to directly criticize the administration or confirm whether there is a boy's club mentality at the White House, saying more must be done to further women's issues and women in government domestically as well as globally.

She said gender diversity, while necessary for all levels of society, remains highly important in the top echelons of government.

"It sends a strong signal. We are obviously men and women of the United States. We are a very diverse population, and people need to feel that they belong, that their perspectives and their experiences are going to have some influence in the way decisions get made."

Asked if there had been missed opportunities in terms of appointments, specifically Defense Undersecretary Michele Flournoy being passed over in favor of former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel to head up the Defense Department, Verveer responded: "It would be great if that glass ceiling at the Pentagon were broken in a way that demonstrated that we are indeed making progress."

She said Flournoy, with whom she worked, "would have been a very qualified candidate."

Verveer noted that many administration positions have yet to be filled. Speaking about women in general, Verveer said, “We’re hard-pressed to say anymore 'Well, we can’t find any women who can do that job.'"

That thinking is a major aim of the Global Women's Issues office. There, Verveer, under Secretary of State Clinton, helped integrate women's issues and their perspective into U.S. foreign policy and the State Department's practices. This involved gender guidance directives for the department, including for the training of diplomats, integrating women in peace and security initiatives, bringing women's issues into the economic sphere, focusing on violence against women, women in agriculture and a host of other issues.

“Whether it’s cabinets, whether it’s Congresses, whether it’s peace negotiations, we’re better off when we have a wealth of experiences and talents represented in the decision-making process," Verveer said.

Obama has named second lady Jill Biden's chief of staff Cathy Russell to succeed Verveer, and Verveer said she is pleased with the decision. Verveer noted Russell's experience on Capitol Hill, where she was closely involved with legislation, as well as the advantages Verveer believes Russell's current position will afford her.

She is “very connected in the White House,” Verveer said of Russell, which she said will help ensure women's issues receive attention.

"She will do a very good job."

Obama on Jan. 30 made permanent the Office of Global Women's Issues, ensuring its work will continue under the new secretary, John Kerry.

Does Clinton's departure mean there is a gap to fill as far as a prominent female member of the administration? Verveer doesn't necessarily agree.

“I don’t know that it’s a prominent woman so much as a real appreciation for why it makes a difference not to just have—as one often refers to it—the boys' club making all the decisions" and having a female perspective injected into decision-making and the agenda, she said.

"Integrating gender in policy is about both men and women" making that happen, she said.

Verveer said one of the most difficult places for women to make progress globally continues to be the political sphere. She noted that in America, we recently celebrated having 20 female senators in office, even though women make up more than half the U.S. population.

“I don’t know, is it sharing power?" she posited about why the political sphere globally remains difficult to equalize.

"Is it that we haven’t modeled enough women in these positions?”