Can a man be secretary of state?

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Foreign policy has long been one of the last great bastions of sexism. But as glass ceiling after glass ceiling is shattered in Washington, the time has come to ask when one of the last great barriers will be overcome: Is America ready for a male secretary of state?

From a theoretical standpoint, there is no reason a man couldn't do the job. But in the salons of Georgetown and the halls of Foggy Bottom, there continues to be a steady undercurrent of chatter that a man just wouldn't be up to it.

Many wonder whether a man would have the endurance. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has visited more than 100 nations, flown 897,951 miles and spent 376 days abroad. By making it to 110 countries in just one term, Ms. Clinton broke the previous record for most countries visited by a secretary: 98, held by Madeleine Albright. Condoleezza Rice visited fewer countries, but she logged more than a million miles. Not many men can match those kinds of frequent flyer points.

Others wonder if a man would have the needed skills. In numerous studies, women rank as more emotionally intelligent than men while enjoying a greater ability to empathize. Both men and women consistently rate women as better listeners than men. While some level of stereotyping is likely at work in these findings, there is much to argue that women are more culturally attuned and adept at interpersonal skills.What skills could be more important for a diplomat?

The pro-women camp doesn't just hang its hat on the touchy-feely side of diplomacy. Many have questioned the policies and abilities of secretaries Clinton, Rice and Albright, but one would be hard-pressed to find someone who said any of them was too soft. Are there any qualified men out there who would be as tough? Just to be politically correct, can we risk appointing a man to this job when we aren't sure if he'd be able to stand up to tyrants in Iran, North Korea and Cuba?

Then there is the great intangible: star power. Is there any man out there who could inspire the "Texts from Hillary" feed that generated 45,000 followers on Tumblr in just a few days? Does anyone know a senior male diplomat who can play piano well enough to perform for Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace the way Ms. Rice did in 2008? Can we imagine the Smithsonian displaying the accessories of a male diplomat that had been used to deliver subtle but powerful diplomatic messages the way Ms. Albright used her pins and broaches?

As Mitt Romney struggles to gain traction in the presidential race, he may be tempted to engage in some classic special-interest politics and promise to appoint a man as secretary of state. After all, men remain an important minority when it comes to voting for president (they constituted 46 percent of voters in the 2008 elections).

We just hope a man would be up to the task.


John Norris is executive director of the Sustainable Security program at the Center for American Progress. He wrote this for Foreign Policy.


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