Pat Schroeder and Deborah James: The Full TranscriptSecretary Deborah Lee James
(Politico) – This week, a special part two of The Global Politico, our report on the everyday culture of sexual harassment — and sexism — that still plagues women who dare to represent America in the world. Yesterday, we rolled out part one, a frank and at times disturbing conversation with six bad-ass women who’ve worked in the Pentagon, the National Security Council, the State Department in recent years. They talked about men watching porn on their office computers, Special Forces dudes walking around the office in their underwear. ‘We thought It was just the cost of doing business in the Pentagon,’ said one of the women. If you haven’t had a chance to listen to it, I hope you will.
And now, today’s episode takes us back to the Pentagon — and the Bad Old Days if you will, when there really weren’t ANY women in national security, as in zero, zip, nada. Congresswoman Pat Schroeder was a key figure in changing that, she served in Congress for 24 years, even ran for president. A Colorado Democrat, she was on the Armed Services Committee, and she joined us on a recent visit to Washington to talk about what it was like to wage that lonely crusade in the 80s and 90s—and all the resistance she faced. Then we’ll hear from Deborah James, the second woman secretary of the Air Force. She served under President Obama, and actually was involved in some horrific cases while she was there — including disciplining a retired four-star general who forced a subordinate to have sex. Why didn’t that case go national when all these other sensational new allegations are? We’ll talk about that and more… but first: former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder.
Pat Schroeder: I’m former congresswoman Pat Schroeder. I was on the Armed Services Committee for all 24 years I was in Congress. So I saw lots of women have all sorts of problems.
Susan Glasser: Well, that’s right and especially in this national security world, as we were talking about, women are a minority of a minority and have been for a long time. So you have the broader problems of the political world that you operated in and of course, Congress, which is not exactly a bastion of progressive thinking, either, then or now. But then how does the national security space specifically do you think differ from those other areas?
Schroeder: Well, first of all, it’s been a very hard, hard pull for these young lionesses. I was the one who pushed to get them into the different academies, which people didn’t want to do, and obviously, those are their sacred spots and worked very hard to try and get them to have all sorts of slots. I’m a pilot, so I couldn’t see any reason they couldn’t fly and there isn’t any reason they can’t fly. They deal with gravity better than men. That’s a dirty old secret but nevertheless, same with getting them into space. They didn’t want to send them into space. They didn’t want to send them anywhere and I had all sorts of horrible experiences coming from Colorado. The speaker put me on the board of overseers at the Air Force Academy. And the Air Force Academy is probably the most advanced of the services, anyway. So they invited me out, land at the Air Force Academy, drags in these young men and he sits there like this and he says, “Tell this woman what you think of her idea to let girls in here.”
“Go ahead, speak freely.” And I’m like, “Well, it might be better if you left.” “No, no, no. Speak freely in front of me. Go ahead, tell them.” So obviously, even the young men knew that all the way through the top command, this was something we imposed on them. This was like some kind of an experiment or some terrible thing. And it was interesting because the young man would say things like, “Well, they could wear their hair long.” And I’d say, “Do you want to wear your hair longer?” “No.” “Does it interfere with the mission?” “No.” “Well, they can wear earrings. Does it interfere with the mission? Do you want to wear it here?” We would just go on and on and they couldn’t—
Glasser: And this was in the 1980s?
Schroeder: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. So this was right before we finally got permission to get them into the academies. So then, one of the things that really troubled me was we did get them in the academies and the Air Force Academy asked that I not be put back on the board. They really were not fond of my term.
Glasser: Were there other women on the board?
Schroeder: No, no. And so then I start watching what’s happening to this incoming class and they’re all suffering from amenorrhea. And I’m thinking, “Oh, my goodness, this did not happen when they desegregated Harvard and Yale. So the pressure must be horrendous and you begin to think, “Oh, gracious.”
And my favorite story just to end on the Air Force Academy is I’m on the floor one day and I get this call, “Go talk to colonel so-and-so from the Air Force Academy.” I get on the phone in a cloakroom and he says, “Damn you. It finally happened. We knew it would happen.” I said, “I’m sorry, could you back up and tell me what ‘it’ is?” “A cadet six months pregnant. We’ve thrown her out.” And I said, “Oh, well, was there anyone else implicated?” “No,” he said, “No, none of the males are implicated.” And I said, “Would you please look out the window? Is there a star over the Air Force Academy? This is the first time I’ve heard of this in several thousand years.”
Well, he threw the phone down and that was the end of it. So they never thought I was very funny. But that type of tension was just incredible that these young lionesses went through. You saw it also, the harassment that you got, Tailhook being one of the many things. I got very involved in the Tailhook thing because there was this one wonderful young woman finally willing to come forward. And as the military women would tell me on the side, “It’s not that we don’t know our options. We know our options stink. Oh, yeah. We could go report it. Who do you report it to? The head of your command, he may be the one harassing you or he may be the one who thinks it’s wonderful.” So where do you go with these stories? And this young woman’s father and grandfather had both been in the Navy and they were like, “Navy men aren’t to act that way and we’re going to stand behind you,” and took on the whole Tailhook thing. Which was very brave of her.
Glasser: This was in 1986?
Schroeder: Right, and on and on it went. But the Tailhook thing had been running for years with huge numbers of women being assaulted, not just military women. Anybody that happened to be walking through that hallway.
Glasser: Did things get better as a result of all the attention to Tailhook? One thing that depressingly is striking to me is that we have had these repeated public moments of scandal around sexual harassment. There was Tailhook and then there was Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas. There have been just in the last few years in the media, these enormous stories about Bill Cosby and O’Reilly and the like and yet, it’s not clear to me that these have been anything other than sort of episodic moments.
Schroeder: Well, and the hope that so many of us had would be that the younger generation, it wouldn’t be a problem and then suddenly, you read all about what’s going on out in Silicon Valley, which would tend to be younger. So you take deep breaths and say, “How do we keep working on this?” I think eventually, a lot of the women have really shown their courage in all of this and eventually, it starts to change. But there was such a feeling of, “We don’t want women.” One of the most surprising things that ever happened to me as I was doing a morning show on ABC where I was talking about getting women into all of the slots that they qualified for.
And when I got done, the cameraman came from behind the camera and starts beating me up, and I’m like—well, they pulled him off. And the powers that be said, “Oh, my gosh. He’s six months from retirement.”
Glasser: You mean he was yelling at you and—
Schroeder: Oh, he was hitting me, yes.
Glasser: He was actually hitting you? He was actually—
Schroeder: He didn’t hurt me because people immediately grabbed him, but—
Glasser: Here in Washington?
Schroeder: Here in Washington at the ABC bureau down there across from the Mayflower Hotel and I was like, “No, no. Don’t do anything. I do not want to be the one that keeps him from his retirement six months from now, for crying out loud.” But to think that that so rankled him what I was saying about women being able to contribute is amazing. I think we also don’t know the history of women. I kept saying to people, “Do you know that there are women soldiers buried—Revolutionary soldiers buried at West Point?” “No, no, no.” I said, “Yes, they cross-dressed and you know what? When they were discovered, Washington insisted they be paid the same because they fought the same.”
Glasser: Can I ask you about the response in the political and national security establishment? So a lot of this activism that you were undertaking on behalf of getting women into positions in the military, getting women into positions in our national security establishment. It was occurring in the 1980s and the 1990s when there’s first two Republican presidents and a Democratic president. That power establishment, how resistant were they? How much did women who entered that world find it welcoming or not? People say, “Oh, well, there was Jeane Kirkpatrick in the Reagan administration.” I can’t imagine that she was really partnering with you on these issues.
Schroeder: No. It was fairly lonely. I found that a lot of women in the women’s movement, especially vis-à-vis the military, their response was, “Why do you want women in the military anyway? We’re for peace.” And I’m like, “I’m for peace, too, but there are people who want to make this their career and I think they might make it a better military if they were in it.” So we were having a big fight with Bella Abzug about it. “Why do you keep pressing away on this? Why don’t we work over here in this area?”
Glasser: But that was a key point, actually. Because I think that probably went on for a long time and it explains why even those women who did enter national security didn’t necessarily have the same infrastructure of support.
Schroeder: They didn’t. They absolutely didn’t and don’t let anyone tell you they did because I kept trying to get it and you can’t think of a women’s convention where this really came up. It was always like, “Well, we’ll get to it but we’re really not for that.”
Glasser: What about the nexus between sex and sexual harassment and the institutionalized sexism and gender discrimination, right? We all understand there is a connection here. But in some ways, we tend to treat these as separate problems. How much, once you got women into these academies, once you fought to get them into positions, did you immediately then begin hearing from them about incidents of sexual harassment or outright sexual assault?
Schroeder: Well, I did from a lot of them and I think one of the interesting things that when the U.N. had that International Year of the Woman, there was a Dr. Elise Boulding who did this very interesting study and I think she was absolutely right. She talked about you can’t really change an institution until you have a critical mass of women. This idea that you put one woman on the board and everything will change. No.
Glasser: The tipping point.
Schroeder: Exactly, you put one woman and everything’s going to—no, no, no. And it’s not like two are going to do it, either. You’ve got to have a critical mass. So clearly, with women going into the military, we’re nowhere near a critical mass nor any of these schools and we’re dealing with the same people who fought violently not to let them in. The second thing is if you go back and look, DOD, they studied women in the military more than any other group that’s ever come into the military and they always did very well. In fact, they did wonderfully well. So they never knew what to do. It was like, “Damn. Well, we’ll study again next year. Maybe it will come out worse next year.”
They used to say, “Well, women will get pregnant. They’re going to miss a lot of time and on and on and on.” They found that what often happened was that young men would be involved in motorcycle accidents and so forth and so on and actually, young men were missing more days than young women. So no matter where you looked at it, they couldn’t find a way to get rid of them.
Glasser: That’s a good way of putting it. Do you have any specific memories of any women that you connected with who brought their stories of harassment to you or that you tried to intervene on their behalf?
Schroeder: Oh, yes. I worked obviously, with the young woman on Tailhook who brought hers. I had then lots of different instances. One of my favorite—Carter, I believe, put in the first woman secretary of the Air Force. And I had an Air Force installation in my district then I came home one weekend and this group of young women came and said, “We’re all junior officers and we’re supposed to go to the officers club”—because that’s where you get your credentials and you schmooze. “But they keep having these topless go-go dancers and everything there.”
Glasser: At the officers club?
Schroeder: At the officers club and it’s really hard. So I said, “Oh, my god. That’s terrible.” So I get a hold of my friend who is secretary of the Air Force and she says, “That’s right. You’re right. I’m putting an order out immediately.” So I think I’m probably the smartest person on the planet and I’ve solved this, bam, bam, which you almost never do. About six months later, they come back to the office and they say, “I thought you were going to fix this. What’s happened?” And I’m like, “What do you mean what’s happened?” I call my friend, the secretary, and she says– she convenes all of the people around her, all the uniform guys and she said, “What happened to that order?” And they said, “Oh, we thought you were kidding.” They didn’t send it out. Well, they did then. That was the end of it.
But that tells you how entrenched it was in their thinking, that, “Oh, she must be kidding. She certainly wouldn’t expect us to take out the topless go-go dancers in the officers club.” Glasser: How did they feel about you in this activism on the Armed Services Committee?
Schroeder: Oh, they didn’t like it at all.
Glasser: Were there other women on the committee at that time?
Schroeder: Yeah. The first year I was there, the Republicans put on a woman, Marjorie Holt.
And then, later on, several other women came on. Actually, I don’t think we ever had more than three. But no, I think they all thought I was nuts. “Why are you causing all this trouble?” It was always, “Why aren’t you doing the important things?” And I would be like, “And what are they?” “Oh, well, how many carriers we should have.” And I would go, “I think I could do both.”
Glasser: Was there a big change with the Clinton Administration coming in?
Schroeder: Well, they certainly appointed a lot more women at the top. That really helped. I think of the bit, if they put out an order, they thought it was kidding. That ended. They believed it. Yeah, I think it really begins to help and you also had a couple of classes from these different academies graduating and moving into the mainstream. The other thing I found that really started to make a difference was some of these admirals and generals and everything, their daughters decided they wanted to go to the Academy or they wanted to be in the military. And I remember one admiral who just fought me tooth and nail about women on ships. “Oh, no. You can’t have women on ships. No. It’s a tight quarter. Oh, my God. The sex, it will be awful.” And I kept saying to him, they have coed dorms at places and this all works out.
And let me tell you how they have locks on the door. Anyway, so one year, he comes for the presentation at the beginning, and all of a sudden, he’s for women on ships. And I thought, “Well, do I embarrass him in front of everybody and say, “What is this?” So afterward, I go in the cloakroom and I said to him, “I think this was a change in your position. Am I correct?” And he said, “Yeah, you got me.” And I said, “Well, what happened?” And he said, “Well, my daughter went into the DC PD, the Washington Police Department. She’d be so much safer on a ship.” And I got to rethinking all of this, and I’m like, “Oh, is that what it takes?”
Glasser: The ultimate politics is personal, right? Well, I know you have to run but I’m also asking everybody if they have any sort of “Me Too” story of their own to share with all those. In your long career in politics, did anyone ever grab you and kiss you? Did anyone ever—
Schroeder: Well, of course, I think everybody’s got stories about wonderful Strom Thurmond because he was older and he could get away with it, you know?
Glasser: Well, you saw what happened to former President George H.W. Bush, though. To me, that was that Thurmond-like behavior, right? So did you get your butt pinched by Strom Thurmond?
Schroeder: I think everybody did. But most of them stayed away because I was fairly clear where I was. I was the dragon lady. They weren’t going to deal with—
Glasser: Right, in public? Absolutely.
Schroeder: But there were some women members who did have trouble with others.
Glasser: Did you feel like they saw you and other women as a support group up on the Hill?
Schroeder: They thought we should be cheerleaders, in many instances, for what they were. There were some that were very good. You always hate to talk in a big generality, but there were some that didn’t get it and probably still don’t get. And who knows what will happen. Look at this week where Congressman Tim Murphy has to resign because while he’s terribly anti-abortion, he has his mistress get an abortion. I mean, really?
Glasser: That sounds like the Congress you remember well from the 1980s, doesn’t it?
Schroeder: I do and it’s unfortunately 2017. Oh, there used to be that joke in the cloakroom people would be talking about. “Well, how about the abortion bill?” And the guy would say, “Yeah, I paid mine.” Oh, really? Funny.
Glasser: They used to say that in the cloakroom? Amazing.
Schroeder: Not all of them, but some.
Glasser: Well, I have to say it’s been a real honor to have a chance to talk with former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder, who was a legendary figure when I first came to Washington, when I graduated from college and started working here as a reporter and I think we often lose the context and the history of how long we’ve been talking about things like this. So for me, it’s particularly valuable, I think, to hear your voice as part of this.
Schroeder: Thank you.
Glasser: Thank you and welcome back to Washington.
Glasser: Hi, I’m Susan Glasser, and welcome back to The Global POLITICO. It’s my great honor to be joined for this part of our conversation in our special episode of The Global POLITICO and the Women Rule podcast with Deborah James, who was the second woman to serve as secretary of the Air Force. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Deborah James: Thank you, Susan.
Glasser: Well, this is really—I’m just overwhelmed by all of the thoughtful reflection and conversation, and national conversation, really, that has been spurred over the last few weeks by these revelations about Harvey Weinstein, about powerful figures in the media. Just the other day, we had the British minister of defense resigning after he was faced with public accusations of harassment, and said he couldn’t be sure there wouldn’t be more coming out.
My guess is, on some level, none of this is a surprise to you. You’ve been living with it privately and professionally for a long time, seeing this play out. But the public aspect of it might be a little bit of a stunner. How has this national conversation impacted you? What have you been thinking about?
James: Well, on the one hand, it’s a shame that we continue to have episodes like this, and we really have had, as you point out, a rash of episodes, a rash of revelations in recent weeks and months. But you’re right, it’s not all that much of a surprise to me. I think this issue of sexual harassment, sexual assault, it has been with us for a long period of time. It’s been with us forever, and the more that we talk about it, I think the more possibility of this really being a game-changing moment in history, where maybe we can get on a different trajectory.
But, on the other hand, I’ve been around enough, scandals happen, things get publicized, everyone rushes to the scandal, but eventually, something else overtakes the public discourse, and we forget. And then we have to repeat when another scandal erupts. I hope that doesn’t happen to us again. I hope real change can be forthcoming.
Glasser: Well, it’s interesting that you raise that. I think there are so many smart women I’ve spoken with, especially in the national security space, and they’re on the one hand feeling it’s about time to have this national conversation but it is definitely tempered by a concern that we’ve been through not one, but many scandals before without it changing many of the structural issues. And I was struck by how many scandals didn’t turn into a national conversation, including ones that you yourself oversaw disciplinary action in.
Just a few months ago, you were then at that time still the secretary of the Air Force. There was an Air Force action that you participated in which you stripped a retired four-star general of two ranks and docked him about $60,000 per year in pension payments after determining that he had coerced sex with a subordinate officer three times and told her that he would—quote—deny it until the day he died. I’m reading from a USA Today story.
You know, I was so impressed, on the one hand with how you handled that. You wrote: “You are hereby reprimanded!” in exclamation points on December 6, 2016. “Your conduct is disgraceful, and but for the statute of limitations bar to prosecution, would be more appropriately addressed through the Uniform Code of Military Justice.”
But there was no big national outcry around this. Tell us about that case and others that you handled as the secretary, and what it tells you about our overall state of willingness to address sexual misconduct.
James: That case, I believe, was one of the most senior uniformed military officers who was ever disciplined. That case was a retired four-star general from the Air Force, as you point out. I think the higher you are in a leadership position, whether you’re in the uniform military, whether you’re in the civilian part of government, whether you’re in business, whatever your industry may be, you’re in a special position of trust. And so, you all the more have to adhere to the rules, have to demonstrate dignity and respect to all.
So, in this case the victim came forward years after the fact, and indeed, as you pointed out, there had been statute of limitation issues, which essentially made the Uniform Code of Military Justice not workable in this case. And so we went through the whole process.
There was a significant investigation. A lot of time and effort went into it. It was fully coordinated. I heard all the viewpoints, including from the accused, as well as from the victim, and at the end of the day I made the decision to hold this person accountable the best way I could with the tools that I still had left in my toolbox.
Again, the higher you are, the greater position of trust that you are privileged to serve in, and if you misuse that trust there needs to be accountability.
Glasser: What do you think, and what did you learn in the course of this case and others that you were privy to as secretary? What did you learn about the culture inside the Pentagon and inside the U.S. military when it comes to questions around abuse of power and sexual coercion? We all know intuitively that there have been scandals inside the uniform military. How does it connect with our broader national security conversation?
James: Well, I’m not so sure there are more scandals within the uniform military than there are in many other walks of life in the United States, and indeed, around the world. I’m not necessarily convinced of that, but of course, my life’s work has been focused on the military and national security.
Glasser: And women are very underrepresented in senior positions in all of these places.
James: Women are underrepresented. If you go way back in my personal career, I started early on, on Capitol Hill for the House Armed Services Committee, and at the time I joined the professional staff, there was only one or two at best other women who were professional staff members. So, I was young and I was one of a very few in that type of a national security job.
I went on to the Pentagon, and was an assistant secretary of defense when I was in my thirties. So once again, I was rather young; I was one of a few at that point. This was the ‘90s in the Clinton administration. And then most recently, I returned to government as the secretary of the Air Force.
This was, of course, an even more senior job. There were more women in the environment, but still, underrepresented. And if you take that to the uniform military side, women have attained the highest ranks on both the enlisted and the officer side, but there are still not that many. It is still an underrepresented, even though we’re 50 percent of the population.
Glasser: Well, so, let’s talk about that. Yesterday we had this very frank conversation with some of your peers, or younger women who worked in the national security field, and we got very real; we got very personal. Like you, I’m sure, we’ve all spent the last few weeks in a way excavating our own past, as well as looking at the broader policy discussion.
And, thinking about those things when we were young and coming up, especially when you were one of only one or two people on, say, the Armed Services Committee staff, what I was blown away by was every single person around the table had incidents that in hindsight, or in today’s climate, would be viewed as harassment, or at the least, a hostile environment—women changing their appearance, or saying, “Oh, gee, I can’t wear skirts to the office. I’m afraid of that assistant secretary.”
Tell us a little bit about your own experience coming through a profession where there were so few other similarly-situated women. Did you ever feel those, or encounter those kind of incidents?
James: When I was in my twenties and thirties, I did encounter some of those types of incidents. My incidents were more when I was on Capitol Hill as a young staffer, and into my early thirties. By the time I reached the Pentagon, I will say I did not encounter those instances, because by the time I reached the Pentagon, I myself was in a position of authority and power, and I was a bit older—though I was still fairly young—for that level of a job.
Youth is not always part of the explanation, but with youth usually comes a lack of authority, a lack of power, a lack of experience, and so people who are older, people who do have that authority and power, can fail in their own integrity, and take advantage of that, and they can press, and they can see what the traffic will bear, so to speak.
And so I have my own stories of that, but they come more from Congress and they come more from my international travels when I was with the Congress. So, it’s not just in the United States, as I said, you will encounter this all over the world. And I think young women—young men, as well—but, youth and a lack of power, it tends to happen more. Not exclusively, but more.
Glasser: Yes. We talked about that, that that is one of the things that makes this national security or foreign policy field different than women encounter these problems in every profession, but this is a specificity of our Washington world, which is traveling internationally to places that have even more problems with this. Several of the women recounted being afraid, literally afraid on some of these foreign trips where they’re representing the United States, or the U.S. Congress, and they felt that they were potentially going to be preyed upon, or also felt a problem with members of Congress not wanting to travel with them, that it could affect their careers negatively. Did you ever experience that, this ceiling? I mean, now, people are afraid a little bit that there could be a backlash—right?—and that the response to, “Oh my goodness, there’s all these accusations of sexual harassment. I shouldn’t be alone with a woman,” the Mike Pence rule.
James: I never feared for my safety, per se, certainly not with any of the U.S. colleagues, be they superiors or peers of mine. I never feared for my safety, but I’ve been in uncomfortable situations which I handled in my own way. What I never did then is what some of the women are now doing today. I never spoke out then. And this is why I say, at a level, or at a point in time where there really is this critical mass of women who are having the courage to come out and speak about these things, we have at least the potential to have this be a game-changing moment.
This has been going on for a long time, but to the extent people like me—and I’m complicit in this—the fact that we said nothing, the fact that we dealt with it in our own way—perhaps in retrospect that was wrong of us to do. But, as you point out, particularly when you’re younger you don’t know quite what to do. You just try to get through it. You don’t succumb to it, hopefully, but you just carry forth and you do the best you can and you ignore it. That was the way I approached it, because I didn’t want to be the one to make an accusation and possibly have it blow back on me, which is why this continues to be a very underreported crime and inappropriate types of behavior.
Glasser: You know, a couple weeks ago in this whole controversy—I’m sure you remember—with White House chief of staff, General John Kelly, he was talking about the Gold Star families. And he made a point that I think caused a lot of women here in Washington to really do a double-take in the course of that, where he seemed to be bemoaning a past where he said women were “sacred.” And a lot of people were surprised by that comment, thinking that the good old days maybe weren’t so good for women.
But I’m wondering, was that attitude prevalent in the Pentagon at the upper levels? You know, it has historically been a somewhat isolated and insulated male-dominated, warrior culture.
James: In the Air Force, in the area that I focused on most recently in government, I didn’t hear talk like this. As a matter of fact, we—during the period that I served—opened up the remaining, that previously had been closed, jobs to women. Now, the Air Force had always been the most open service; it was a little bit more difficult for the Marine Corps, and, of course, Kelly is a Marine retired general. It was a little bit more difficult for the Army. It was probably the easiest for the Air Force to open up those remaining jobs.
But if you go back in time, in the 1990s, for example, I was in the Pentagon at the time that we collectively opened up combat aircraft to women, and combat naval vessels to women, as well. That was much more I would say gut-wrenching from my memories. So, the leaders of that era, who were at that time four-star generals, were much more of the ilk of, say, my father, the type of thing that my father would say, and my father might have said something like, “Women are sacred.” My father—God rest his soul—was born in the year 1923.
So, this is also a generational thing. And it is my hope that the more that we bring women into these different types of specialties, and particularly if we can reach a critical mass—not just a handful, but a critical mass of women, and men see that they’re doing the job—these attitudes will change.
Glasser: Were there things that you tried to do that you were surprised or frustrated that you couldn’t get done when it came to empowering women more within the military?
James: As the secretary of a military service, we are privileged when we are in these jobs to be able to give out promotion instructions to promotion boards. And these are portrayed as your individual instructions. But with that said, there are a lot of parameters. And I had hoped to be able to put more about the importance of diversity and inclusion into those promotion instructions to try to bring up more people of diverse backgrounds and diverse ethnicities, and gender, and so on. I had hoped to put more in those promotion instructions, but found that I was legally constrained and that it was really quite modest, what I was able to do. So that was a bit of a surprise. I thought I would have more leeway than I did.
What was not surprising—and again, this is what gives me hope for the future—is the senior male leaders in the Air Force of today were very embracing of these initiatives, of the thrust of wanting to work on this more. Because, guess what? We’re all in a war for talent, and if 50 percent of the population of young people that you’re trying to draw from is female, then why wouldn’t you want to get your fair share of that fantastic talent in the front door?
So, they get that part. That’s the business imperative, I’ll say, for the Air Force. And so, I think it is different today. We have come a long way, but there still is a long way yet to go.
Glasser: Well, that’s a good summation of it. One of the things that came up repeatedly in our group conversation was the question of whether women in national security face the added almost public burden of our very image of what a guardian of national security looks like, right? Why does Donald Trump appoint so many generals? He calls them “my generals.” Because they fit the suit—you know, this notion that we have to have a sort of big, burly, retired three- or four-star general communicating to us about our defense policies and national security.
How much do you think our notion of guardianship and of national security is still tied up with images of men?
James: Probably a great deal. And when you speak about command of troops—I mean, that is very, very still heavily commanded by men. I mean, women who have come up through the ranks and been at the senior-most positions in the military have tended to be more in the acquisition field; they’ve been medical corps; they’ve been things other than combat-oriented command of troops. That’s changing gradually, but very gradually.
Glasser: Right. And if you need to be a combat commander in order to then rise up to the very top—right—
James: You had to have checked all the boxes along the way for promotions and so on. But one example that we’re all very proud of is General Lori Robinson, who is the first combatant commander. She is the commander of Northern Command, so she’s responsible for the defense of the United States, as well as the entirety of North America. So, she is a combatant commander and she is a first.
So, that’s an example of how things have slowly changed for women to be able to command troops. As the secretary of a service, I liken the job to more being the CEO of the enterprise, so it’s a question of budget, it’s talent management. It’s a question of training and investments for technology, and procurement, and so on. But what I always tell women about matters of appearance is, be who you are, play to your own strengths. Don’t try to outdo somebody else who has strengths that you don’t have.
So, for example, I was never a combat pilot, so I never attempted to outdo the combat pilot on matters of piloting a combat aircraft, if you see what I mean. But I did know a lot about business. I knew a lot about the Congress, budgets, talent management—so you’ve got to play to your strength, and there’s where you need to also have a team of people around you who can complement you where you’re not as strong.
Glasser: Looking back 20, 25, 30 years ago, when you were a young staffer starting out on the House Armed Services Committee, what would you tell your 20-something, 30-something self now, when it comes to these issues of gender in the workplace and sexual harassment?
James: I would tell my 20-something self in certain ways to do exactly what you did, which is dream big, aspire high, go for it. But I think I would also tell my 20-something-year-old self, speak up more. When you see things that aren’t appropriate or when something happens to you that is not appropriate, speak up. Don’t be fearful; speak up. Take that chance. And I would like to think that I might do that.
But again, when I was in my early twenties, I, too, had a certain fear about speaking up, and didn’t want to make waves. And that’s another thing. It’s this bystander complex. So, whether we’re a woman or we’re a man, if we’re in an environment and we see things going south quickly, if we see inappropriate jokes, inappropriate touching, anything of this nature, to the extent we stand by and let it happen, or worse yet, if we giggle along with the joke, that’s real bad. And all of us who care about this issue need to stop doing that to the extent that we have done it.
So, it’s not just if it happens to you, but if you are in the environment and you see it happening, take a stand. Say something.
Glasser: I’m sure you must have known men who have been accused of things like this, or where this happened firsthand to you, and going back and thinking about that is a very complicated and painful thing, right? You don’t get to go back 20 years in time.
James: You don’t get to go back, but again, I will say, in the spectrum of things that could happen to a person, I didn’t have the worst end of the spectrum happen to me. And so, through the years it has not been something that has deeply troubled me, that I’ve had difficulty getting beyond, so to speak.
But this is a moment in time when we’re reflecting, because it is so much in the headlines, and there are so many prominent people now who we now know have really engaged in some pretty predatory behavior. So, I think at a moment like this it makes somebody like me—and perhaps like some of the other women you’re speaking with—reflect back to some of the things that happened to us, or that happened to our peers, that we either knew about or should have known about, and how did we react? And how might we recommend to our own daughters, our own sons, other young people in our midst—what would we recommend today? And I know I would recommend speak up.
Glasser: Secretary Deborah James, second woman secretary of the Air Force and our guest this week on The Global POLITICO. You know, Eleanor Roosevelt was famous for saying that to be a woman in public life, you have to have the skin of a rhinoceros, and I keep thinking of that when it comes to how many women have chosen to tough it out in very male-dominated spaces like national security. And I thank you both for your service and your thoughtful comments today. I know our listeners are grateful, as well to you.
James: Thank you, Susan.
Glasser: Thank you.