Reports that president-elect Joe Biden will pick Michele Flournoy as his secretary of defense have already spurred celebration of her for being the first woman to hold the position. Biden will “break barriers” with the likely appointment, according to an Associated Press headline; tapping Flournoy is “consistent with Biden’s pledge to have a diverse Cabinet,” the article continues.
On the surface it might seem like an obvious gain for women to have another woman appointed to such a high office for the first time. But to laud Flournoy based on this fact is to endorse an empty version of feminism, which asks us to support women no matter what they do.
In this case, Flournoy would be taking over a branch of the federal government responsible for the United States’ military occupation and invasion of other countries, the airstrikes that have routinely killed civilians overseas, and the National Security Agency, an agency within the Department of Defense, which knowingly violates Americans’ civil liberties. Since Flournoy has served multiple stints in the Pentagon starting in the 1990s, she’s been party to some of the country’s worst imperialist, hawkish pursuits, and she has only further enabled them as a board member of the defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. (It’s worth noting she was also Hillary Clinton’s top choice for secretary of defense, had she won in 2016.)
The last four years have seen a more mainstream backlash to the idea that women “breaking glass ceilings” is a de facto good for the entire gender. We’re skeptical of girl bosses and “She-E-Os,” of brands trying to make us believe that all women are morally pure and equally deserving of power and success. These critiques most neatly summed up in a viral 2017 tweet, which imagined liberals demanding that the U.S. “hire more women guards” in response to a conservative call to “round up Muslims and put them in camps.”
It was easier, perhaps, to see the hollowness of so-called women’s empowerment, when the Trump administration demanded praise for appointing the first woman CIA director, Gina Haspel, who had overseen the Bush-era torture program. But it’s no less cynical now that an incoming Democratic administration is making a similar (if, for now, implicit) appeal.