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Women on the Verge

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The campaign to get Elizabeth Warren appointed to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau got me thinking -- why is it that so many of the heroic leaders who have pushed the Obama administration to be more steadfastly progressive on financial issues just happen to be female?

That honor roll would begin with Warren; it would include Sheila Bair, who heads the FDIC; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington State; former commodities regulator Brooksley Born; and Heather Booth who spearheaded Americans for Financial Reform.

Inside the administration, the member of the senior economics team who has pushed hardest for a more expansive approach to economic recovery is the chair of President Obama's Economic Council, Christina Romer.

What these people have in common is that they are not members of the financial old boys' club, in both senses. They are neither one of the boys, nor did they come out of the Wall Street milieu.

And two of the three Republican senators who broke ranks to provide the sixty votes to pass financial reform, Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, are also women. The third, Senator Scott Brown, who must run for re-election in liberal Massachusetts in 2012, in less fluky circumstances than the special election of January 2010, is not so much a profile in courage as an expedient politician.

It's not that all the good guys are female -- Rich Trumka and Damon Silvers of the AFL-CIO have played a heroic role, too; as has Paul Volcker; as well as other leading Senate progressives such as Dick Durban, Jeff Merkley, and Ted Kaufman.

But Warren and the other female members of the Administration's loyal opposition have displayed real bravery. Warren surely knew that when she was asking hard questions of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, she was reducing the chances that she would be welcomed into the administration. But she never pulled her punches.

Sheila Bair, when she was resisting Geithner's plans to bail out and prop up banks without drastically reforming them at the same time, made herself the odd woman out. Read any of the several books on the financial crisis that rely on insider background interviews, and you will read the same putdowns of Bair emanating from the Geithner camp. Yet Bair has remained steadfast.

Gender, of course, is no guarantee of progressive politics, clear thinking, or political bravery. One of the odd things of our era is that two generations after radical feminists began battering down barriers to full participation, some of the most visible beneficiaries are rightwing women, many of them truly whacked out in their views. The fact that Sarah Palin can thank Gloria Steinem is small comfort.

For instance, the prize for the most disingenuous commentary on the Shirley Sherrod affair has to go to that female pioneer, Peggy Noonan, former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan. Writing in Saturday's Wall Street Journal, and spinning the Sherrod affair to suggest symmetrical blame, Noonan began,

"She was smeared by rightwing media, condemned by the NAACP, and canned by the Obama Administration. It wasn't pretty, what was done this week to Shirley Sherrod."

But in the entire piece, which took up nearly half of the Journal's op-ed page, you never learn what actually happened. The details of the doctored video and the Fox pile-on are left out, suggesting that the entire establishment just happened to gang up on poor Sherrod, while good old Noonan, a paladin of the respectable right, is seeking lessons of redemption.

Shamelessness evidently knows no bounds of gender. Sherrod, by contrast, was a picture of dignity and bravery, as she has been throughout her career.

It would be comforting believe that greater gender equality, per se, will produce a more constructive substantive politics. Linda Tarr-Whelan has written an important book titled Women Lead the Way. Her research demonstrates that when women hit a tipping point of about 30 percent in leadership roles in organizations of all kinds, the dynamic changes and there is more receptivity to fresh thinking.

But we are a long way from that magic number in the House or the Senate, nor in large corporations, nor among President Obama's top financial officials. (Still, it is to Obama's credit that his first two selections for the Supreme Court have been women, as have two of his three recent appointees to the powerful Federal Reserve Board.)

The Atlantic recently ran one of its patented cover pieces that combine serious exploration of a complex topic with pop-culture hyperbole. This one, titled "The End of Men," speculated that something about post-industrial society at last will overthrow male dominance ("What if the economics of the new era are better suited to women?"), and that the displacement of males is already well advanced. But this breathless proclamation of writer Hanna Rosin may be a bit premature.

Wall Street, after all, is the ultimate post-industrial redoubt -- they don't make anything, they just manipulate paper -- and it doesn't get much more male. The typical trading floor is pure frat-house. And the crowd making financial policy in Washington are only a shade more in touch with their inner-woman.

Elizabeth Warren would be a serious offset to the usual financial Animal House. Alas, that's why her nomination remains something of a long shot.

Robert Kuttner's new book is A Presidency in Peril. He is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior fellow at Demos.