White House Misses Opportunity For First Woman Chief Of Staff
Now halfway through his term, President Biden used this week’s State of the Union address to comment on what his administration has accomplished so far and, more importantly, to outline what’s on the horizon. Beginning on Thursday, he will employ a new chief of staff to translate that agenda into reality.
Former Covid Czar Jeff Zients will be moving into Ron Klain’s old office, and once again, the responsibility of running the West Wing will go to a man.
Since 1946, when the job was officially created, the role of White House chief of staff has been a mainstay of U.S. politics. In that time, there have been 30 chiefs of staff. That group includes four “Johns,” two “Jacks,” and two “Donalds”—but not a single woman.
Political insiders believe the chief of staff choice to be an extremely important one. Some believe it to be the single most important personnel decision a president makes. Though the specifics of the job vary across administrations, the appointed chief of staff serves as the president’s right hand, gatekeeper, proxy and overseer for key policy decision processes. There’s arguably no person in the executive branch with a better pulse on the West Wing—or access to the president. Ultimately, chiefs of staff are unelected officials who wield enormous power, and the decision of who holds that power often signals the priorities of the White House.
The Biden administration has on multiple occasions indicated the importance of a White House that “looks like America” and, in doing so, introduced the first female vice president, the first gender-balanced cabinet and the first White House Gender Policy Council. And yet, as U.S. women continue to see lower earnings compared to men and now navigate a rapidly changing patchwork of reproductive rights laws across the country, the administration didn’t choose a woman for chief of staff.
While no woman has held this post, a small handful of women have served in the role just below it, as deputy chief of staff for operations. Though that job exists primarily behind the scenes, the direct impact of having women in the deputy role is well documented.
When Alyssa Mastromonaco was deputy chief of staff for the Obama administration, women of the White House developed a strategy of “amplification:” one woman spoke in a meeting, another would repeat the point raised while making sure to mention who said it first to ensure the comment was heard and that credit was given where it was due. The strategy quickly went viral, extending far beyond West Wing culture into meetings across working America.
Mastromonaco, the youngest woman to ever hold her position, also famously got the first ever tampon dispenser installed in the West Wing women’s restroom. “If we were serious about bringing more women into politics, the West Wing should have a basic level of comfort,” Mastromonaco wrote for the Washingtonian. “There was no objection to my proposal—it just seemed like no one had thought of it.”
Multiple chiefs of staff cycled in and out during her tenure, and some questioned why then-president Obama didn’t make the seemingly logical decision to elevate Mastromonaco to the role, particularly considering her regular public appearances “to deliver the talking points about how aggressive the administration has been at promoting women.”