The White House will soon have a Gender Policy Council.
The council — like many parts of the Biden administration — has its roots in eras past, but a new name, a new structure, a full-time leader and a larger staff will help keep gender issues — and yes, “women’s issues” (no eye-rolling, thank you) — at the center of almost everything the administration does.
Consider this: The council will not be relegated to some distant, dusty government building. It will find its home in the White House and it intends to have high-level representation in all offices, including the Council on Economic Advisers and the Defense Department. And it will directly collaborate with every agency across government, working on all of the issues that touch American lives, most notably women’s lives, such as national security, health care and economics. Amid two crises — a pandemic and an economic downturn — that have devastated women professionally and personally, the Gender Policy Council will play a critical role in pushing forward President Joe Biden’s agenda.
All it is waiting for is Biden’s signature.
Leading the effort will be two co-chairs: Julissa Reynoso, who served as ambassador to Uruguay, and Jennifer Klein, who served as senior adviser to Hillary Clinton, then the first lady.
This is not the first time the two women have worked together; they started their careers as lawyers at the same law firm. Klein has worked in feminist organizations for more than 25 years, and Reynoso formerly served in the State Department. They also happen to share a mentor, Clinton. Now they are in charge of ensuring that gender equity underscores the work of all branches of government.
“This is not just a council,” Klein said in the first interview that they have given since being appointed as co-chairs. “It’s a plan to take a governmentwide approach to gender equity and equality.”
That way, Klein explained, the policy areas traditionally viewed as women’s issues — the pay gap, sexual harassment, reproductive health and child care — will not be separated from the administration’s broader priorities like climate change or infrastructure.
“The council is an absolutely critical first step,” Clinton said. “It sends a very clear policy message to the rest of government that there is going to be constant attention paid to how important it is to integrate the kinds of concerns women are facing, especially post-pandemic.”
How it all began
In 1995, Clinton, then a first lady with a reputation for challenging the conventional constraints of her role, flew to Beijing to deliver a speech that echoed around the globe.
“Women’s rights are human rights,” she declared.
It was a call to action that spurred the creation of the first White House body focused on advancing issues of gender equity across all government offices.
Melanne Verveer, then chief of staff to the first lady, recalled that on the 75th anniversary of women’s suffrage, President Bill Clinton interrupted a vacation in Wyoming to announce a new Interagency Council on Women, which would be tasked with weaving the ambitious vision and ideas from the Beijing World Conference on Women into U.S. policies.
The interagency council was initially chaired by Madeleine Albright — the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations at the time — and later by Donna Shalala, the secretary of Health and Human Services.
But it was clear that Hillary Clinton was driving the effort: “The beehive of activity resided in the first lady’s office,” Verveer said. “That was where a lot of the leadership was emanating.”
Female representatives from every corner of government enthusiastically approached agency secretaries, who were predominantly male, and urged them to turn their attention to wage inequality, child care, paid family leave and more.
“They were empowered because it was coming from the White House,” Verveer said. In other words, the mere existence of the council, stamped with the presidential seal, sent a signal that women’s issues were considered a top priority.
But both Albright and Shalala were doing their council work in addition to their day jobs, and because the council itself did not include Cabinet secretaries, it could, at times, be difficult to get upper level buy-in from senior leadership. It didn’t help that the council reported to the first lady, not the president. In October 1997, for example, the White House hosted its first official conference on child care, with Clinton presiding over the discussion.
The first lady invited Robert Rubin, then secretary of the Treasury, to participate in the panel and draw the connection between quality child care and benefits to the economy.
He was perplexed by the request, Clinton recalled.
According to Verveer, he responded, “Well, what do I know about child care?”
He eventually agreed to speak, but “he was taken somewhat aback in being asked — it was a little bit outside his comfort zone,” Clinton said.
Taking it a step further
After the Clintons left the White House, President George W. Bush quietly disbanded the Interagency Council on Women, leaving it to Laura Bush, the first lady, to advocate women’s rights out of her office and in conjunction with the Office of Global Women’s Issues. On paper, the Office of Global Women’s Issues was an arm of the State Department, but in reality it was housed far from the action, in a small satellite office on a nondescript street in Washington.
In 2009, the situation changed again. Under President Barack Obama, the White House created a new, slightly more powerful gender-focused council called the Council on Women and Girls.
This time, every Cabinet member was involved, said Tina Tchen, who was appointed as the council’s executive director and who now serves as the president and chief executive of the anti-sexual harassment Time’s Up movement.
Tchen and Valerie Jarrett, who was named the council’s chair, initially considered creating a Cabinet-level gender council position or a broader gender ambassador, but decided against it in the end. It sounds counterintuitive, but they felt that it would give the designated “gender person” less power every time issues like sexual harassment in the military or sexual assault on college campuses arose. “If you created a separate office and kept all the issues around gender concentrated in one place, the temptation would be to look down the Cabinet table, point to the gender person and say, ‘Not my problem, it’s their problem,’” Tchen said.
Instead, Tchen and Jarrett structured the council like a consultancy, pushing each agency to focus on gender issues within its own ranks and broader policy agenda. It worked with the Transportation Department, for example, to train bus drivers and flight attendants to recognize signs of sex trafficking.
The council, however, still didn’t have a full-time leader — Tchen was also director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, and Jarrett served as a senior adviser to Obama — nor did it report directly to the president. And it didn’t have much authority to design policies itself.
“It was situated in the Office of Public Engagement so it had more of a public relations or outreach function,” said Lyric Thompson, senior director of policy and advocacy at the International Center for Research on Women.
And, Thompson added, the council tended to neglect foreign policy issues. Much of the activity on global gender initiatives came instead from the State Department, under Hillary Clinton, who as secretary of state appointed Verveer to be the country’s first ambassador for global women’s issues.
The council was dismantled again in 2017, under President Donald Trump, who also left the role of ambassador for global women’s issues vacant until December 2019. At various points throughout Trump’s term, his daughter Ivanka took up the mantle, but it was a piecemeal effort. She publicly pushed for child care and paid leave reforms and, in 2019, she set up a $50 million fund for the U.S. Agency for International Development to help expand what she called “women’s economic participation,” but there were no specifics on how to carry out this plan and no staffing for these projects.
Ultimately, there was no empowered body to ensure her projects were executed.
“The council has to be the driver, the convener, the nudge,” Clinton said. “Creating it doesn’t solve anything. But without it, it will be really difficult to get anything done.”
‘We’ve come 180 degrees’
Although Biden has yet to officially establish the Gender Policy Council through executive order, Klein and Reynoso have been at work for weeks putting together their priorities for their first days on the job. The council will report directly to the president, sending the message that their work is a presidential priority.
Unlike previous iterations of gender councils, this one will consist of four full-time staff members — three senior-level advisers who will craft policy and one staff member who will focus on administration duties — in addition to Klein and Reynoso. Klein will be its dedicated, full-time chair, while Reynoso is also serving as chief of staff to the first lady, Jill Biden.
Every Cabinet member will participate. This may be more of a formality, but it shows that agency leaders are obligated to make clear commitments to advance the council’s work. And the executive order will call for the Cabinet members to designate representatives within their agencies who will be in charge of advancing gender equity work, both within their teams and when it comes to crafting new policies.
“Part of the thinking is to have senior officials who can oversee each respective agency’s work towards advancing gender equity and equality,” Reynoso said.
This staffing structure, Thompson added, will also make it more difficult (though not impossible) for future administrations to dismantle the council. It is easier for presidents to keep existing agencies, she explained, because “there is funding from the last budget cycle and a slot in the ‘Plum Book.’” (The Plum Book is the publication produced by House and Senate committees after every presidential election that lists the thousands of workers in the legislative and executive branches of government, from department heads to clerks, under the previous president.)
From day one, Klein and Reynoso’s plans will touch on a range of issues. They want to see a national plan for addressing gender-based violence, for example, and they want to see the federal government improve workplace policies for its female employees, serving as a model for other employers around the country to do the same.
They recognize, too, that this work demands partnership. They are hoping to collaborate with the Democratic Women’s Caucus — a body comprising all of the Democratic women in the House — which has its own set of priorities, including passing the Equal Rights Amendment, pushing for a higher minimum wage and protecting abortion access.
And they will help set in motion key components of the Biden administration’s economic recovery program, particularly to fund caregiving.
“We’ve come 180 degrees from the world where people in power don’t think caregiving is an issue they need to focus on,” said Klein, who recalled feeling pleasantly surprised when Biden announced during the presidential campaign that caregiving would be the third plank of his economic recovery plan.
“I thought, ‘OK, this is definitely a new world,’” she said.