When Janet Yellen made history last year by becoming the first female chair of the Federal Reserve, economists and sexual-equality advocates alike cheered the move. But it also renewed scrutiny of the gender gap at the top of the U.S. government's financial institutions. While departments such as Commerce and Interior have seen female chiefs come into their ranks, the Fed and Treasury continue to be led mostly by (white) men.
But the familiar narrative of Finance-as-Boys'-Club leaves out the little-known but important fact that every U.S. Treasurer—whose name appears on every printed U.S. dollar—has been a woman for the last 60 years. (Several of those women have been Latina; one was African American.) Why?
President Harry S. Truman started the tradition in 1949 when he appointed Georgia Neese Clark, who campaigned for the Democrats in her Republican home state of Kansas. (The position of treasurer has existed since 1775.) By naming Clark as treasurer, Truman rewarded her loyalty and acknowledged the Democrats’ debt to the votes of women, who had joined the workforce in droves by the end of World War II. The job, like many ambassador positions, has continued to go to women with a history of political activism.
So why did a streak of female treasurers continue uninterrupted after Truman appointed Clark?
“Once there’s a woman appointed in a position, it’s easy to assume that position is one that could be filled by a woman,” says Jennifer Lawless, who directs the Women and Politics Institute at American University. “Once an initial ceiling is broken, once an initial piece of progress is made, there is a tendency to continue down that path.”
Such is the power of precedent. Once Clark proved herself capable of excelling at a certain position, future presidents felt less inclined to return to the way things used to be, Lawless said.
Of course, the U.S. treasurer is a much more ceremonial job than the powerful position of treasury secretary—a role that has only ever been held by (white) men, currently by Jack Lew (of meme-worthy signature fame). The current treasurer Rosa Gumataotao Rios, the sixth Latina ever to hold the job, advises top Treasury and finance officials and directly oversees the U.S. Mint and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. But Rios cannot create policy the way Lew or Yellen can, nor is her job as crucial to the functioning of the administration as theirs is. Ever since a woman was first appointed, the treasurer position has seen long stretches of vacancies—totaling 3,359 days, or nine years.
If this suggests a historical pattern of tokenism, Rios, who previously served as a managing director of investments for a $22 billion investment-management firm, rejects the relevance of any such pattern to her appointment. And in a statement to The Atlantic, the Department of Treasury emphasized the scope of Rios’s job: “While the role of the Treasurer of the United States has evolved over time, today the Treasurer of the United States oversees two major components of the Department of Treasury—the U.S. Mint and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. This includes managing 4,000 employees and a currency and a coin portfolio with a $4.5 billion budget. The Treasurer is also a senior advisor to the Secretary and Deputy Secretary of Treasury on a wide variety of issues, including community development.”*