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Column: Obama Chose Individuals, Not Women

This story was written by Alyssa Owens, Daily Collegian


When asked to step forward and say a few words at a press conference Monday, four of the six members of president-elect Barack Obama's new national security team could barely clear the microphone.

With the exception of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, height wasn't the only thing distinguishing the short-statured officials from the rest of their new colleagues - they were also, coincidentally, women.

High-heels couldn't even elevate future Secretary of State Sen. Hillary Clinton, soon-to-be Secretary of Homeland Security Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano and future U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice above a microphone that had been adjusted to Obama's 6'1" frame.

But even if the physical differences hadn't made it so obvious, it would be tough not to notice that the first gender-balanced national security team was standing on stage.

Security and international relations sectors of government, which is often viewed as something inherently masculine and militarized, have incorporated women into their ranks at a slower rate than departments like health, housing or education.

Some are now asking what a gender-balanced security team means in terms of policy. Will more estrogen translate into softer diplomacy or less conflict? Will Clinton devote a disproportionate amount time to advancing her international women's health initiatives?

These questions stem from the controversy over the existence of essential and biological differences between men and women. Scientists, psychologists and sociologists have been looking to put an end to the debate for centuries, and both sides of the debate say the scientific evidence is on their side.

I don't know if nature impacts capability or personality. And if it does, I don't know which sex is better at math or which is more likely to compromise.

I do know that as long as we talk about what separates men and women, and why those distinctions matter in politics, we deny officials the opportunity to serve America as individuals.

America elected Obama, as an individual, to be its leader. We gave him the authority to appoint other individuals who will lead our country with strength and wisdom.

By obsessing over difference, we're building a cage around politicians, confining them to a single identity.

Back in April, Clinton said that the U.S. would "obliterate" Iran if it threatened a nuclear attack on Israel.

Because the Democratic primaries were so saturated with discussion about the implications of a woman commander-in-chief, I'm not sure if Clinton made that comment because she meant it, or if her hard line and harsh language were compensation for the perceived weakness of her gender. This is the unfortunate side effect of our society's preoccupation with gender differences.

Clinton is a woman, and she invariably brings her experience as a woman to her politics. They are inextricable.

But current Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who also has an extra Y chromosome, has not spent nearly as much time addressing women's issues as Clinton and countless male politicians have.

Women in politics advocacy groups across the world are now celebrating the presence of Susan Rice, Napolitano and Clinton on a government team that has historically been dominated by men.

I agree that in our representative democracy, it is crucial that people of all genders, races and walks of life serve in positions of power.

But we can't make a prediction about what, if anything, the mere appointment of women means in terms of policy.

So, until they prove otherwise, let's assume that the new women in the Obama admnistration will serve in the same capacity and with similar goals as any other appointee. Their gender has shaped them, but it does not define them.

As we saw Monday, the women are not as tall and may not have as big of feet as most of their predecessors.

But if we spend too much time analyzing that, we will deny them the chance to fill, and maybe even outgrow, the shoes of those who came before them.

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