Key women in the Obama White House

It is obvious which woman is expected to be a key – if unofficial – adviserto the new US president, and from her Princeton education to her green leather gloves, we know plenty about the first lady, Michelle Obama. But other women are set to be central to Barack Obama’s White House too, including well-known figures such as Hillary Clinton, Valerie Jarrett and Jill Biden.


Some consider Obama to be a distinctly feminist choice of president – the current cover of Ms magazine depicts him in a T-shirt with the slogan, “This is what a feminist looks like.” But questions have also been asked about whether he has made enough female appointments; only five of the 20 cabinet-level posts in his administration have been given to women. One commentator sniffed that “the numbers really aren’t any more impressive than [those of] any other previous president”.

Is this a new era for women in US politics then? We shall have to wait and see. For now, what the women of the current Obama White House may lack in quantity, they will, we hope, make up for in quality.

Hillary Clinton, secretary of state

Clinton, of course, needs no introduction. At 61, she has given up her Senate seat after eight years, and has a lot to prove in her new role. Doubts linger over whether she is too independent or ambitious to be secretary of state, which has been called “the second most prestigious job in the country”. Will she be able to achieve what she wants while hovering in second place? Or is she just biding her time until another presidential bid? Also, can she keep that pesky husband in check? Whatever happens, she will be fascinating to watch.

Jill Biden, second lady

The 57-year-old wife of vice president Joe Biden was the unsung hero of the presidential election, and although she doesn’t have an official political role in the Obama White House, she promises to be a high-profile role model for working women. A mother of three and grandmother of five, she worked a four-day week as an English teacher in Delaware until last December, and was seen marking school work on the campaign bus. She is currently lookingfor a teaching job in Washington.

Biden is originally from Pennsylvania, where her father was a banker and her mother stayed at home to bring upfive daughters, of whom Jill was the eldest. She took her first job at the age of 15, and said in an interview in 2007 that she “wanted my own money, my own identity, my own career”. Wary of marrying into politics, she only agreed to marry Joe after he had proposed five times. Biden is known as discreet, loyal and principled: many of her school colleagues were surprised to discover that her husband was a senator – she hadn’t mentioned it. What else? She has two master’s degrees and a doctorate, runs five miles a day, used to be a model, and set up a breast cancer charity in honour of four of her friends.

  Janet Napolitano, homeland security secretary

Napolitano, 51, is a New York-born Italian American, and former governor of Arizona, with a background in law. A fighter and an idealist, she was diagnosed with breast cancer while attorney general of Arizona, and famously gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention three weeks after a mastectomy. Napolitano is single, and is not exactly an advocate of work-life balance – she reportedly often works 19-20 hour days. But don’t let that put you off. A huge basketball fan, she also loves whitewater rafting and hiking, and has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.

  Susan Rice, UN ambassador

Rice, 44, a mother of two, is a Rhodes scholar who became the youngest ever assistant secretary of state – in Bill Clinton’s administration – and the first African-American woman to be US ambassador to the UN. Unapologetically ambitious, she most recently acted as senior foreign policy adviser to Obama and is not afraid to speak frankly about conflict in Africa or the need for military intervention. (This doesn’t necessarily make her a hawk. She supported Obama because of his stance against the Iraq war.) Supporters call her “brilliant”. Critics, however, describe her as “inflexible”.

  Hilda Solis, labour secretary

Born in California to parents who came from Nicaragua and Mexico, Solis, 51, was the third of seven children and helped raise her younger siblings, before going on to become the first Hispanic woman to serve in the state senate. Described as having “patience, passion and guts”, she is known for her devotion to environmental causes. Solis was originally a supporter of Hillary Clinton, and Obama actively sought her on his ticket because of her appeal to Hispanic voters. Her appointment is seen as a sign that Obama supports “green jobs” – and won’t put environmental issues on hold just because of the economic climate.


   Lisa Jackson, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief

The first African-American head of the EPA, Jackson, 46, is a Princeton-educated chemical engineer and was, most recently, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. Amidst general optimism about Obama’s choices, Jackson’s appointment has been harshly criticised, with detractors saying that she has a “disastrous record”, and one report claiming that she failed to use her authority to speed up the cleaning process in seven toxic waste sites in New Jersey. She is seen as a member of Obama’s inner circle.

  Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser

Known variously as “Barack’s rock”, “the other half of Obama’s brain” and “the female version of Barack”, Jarrett, 52, is one of the Obamas’ closest friends and is now a senior adviser – the only woman in a team of four. She responded gracefully to mealy-mouthed concerns this week that Michelle Obama is too outspoken to be first lady, saying that she “would call her thoughtful, honest and candid”.

Jarrett has been close to the family since July 1991 when she hired Michelle to work for her in the offices of Chicago mayor Richard Daley. The meeting was fateful: Jarrett has said that she felt that she “had” to hire the future first lady (at that time, Michelle Robinson) because their backgrounds and life choices were so similar. Both women gave up promising careers in corporate law in exchange for jobs where they hoped to “make a difference”.

Jarrett has an impressive track record: she has chaired the Chicago Stock Exchange and retains her title as CEO of Chicago real estate management and development giant The Habitat Company where she has worked for more than adecade. Her role in the Obama administration is shrouded with mystery.

Insiders describe her as the ultimate big-sister figure for Obama, a sounding board, unofficial strategist and brilliant diplomat. After a short-lived marriage to her childhood sweetheart (who died shortly after their divorce), she was a single parent to her daughter Laura, now 22 and at Harvard Law School. Looking at the White House on Tuesday, she said, “You have to pinch yourself to think that that’s home.”

Desiree Rogers, White House social secretary

Rogers, 49, is a communications powerhouse who has worked in everything from the energy sector to the arts. An arch networker and possible fashion rival to Michelle, she has been interviewed for the February issue of US Vogue.The Obamas are nothing less than old family friends: Rogers’s ex-husband played basketball with Michelle’s brother. She has a reputation as the ultimate hostess and is very much a part of the Chicago socio-political scene, where her closest friends include Oprah Winfrey and Valerie Jarrett.

Rogers regularly tops lists of the most powerful African-American women in the US and her favourite saying is apparently: “Laissez les bon temps rouler.” (Let the good times roll.) From now on she is responsible for every White House social event.


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