- The Presidency and Women: Promise, Performance, and Illusion
The language presidents choose to use to describe women and the policies that affect them comprise the data that Janet M. Martin draws upon in The Presidency and Women: Promise, Performance and Illusion to illustrate the perceptions that presidential administrations from 1961 to 1981 had of women. Martin's detailed archival work brings to life through the presidents' own words the very image of the evolution of women and women's issues within [End Page 536] American society during this period. She provides for the reader evidence of how presidents have assisted in elevating women within society through their appointment to their administrations, thus providing women access to power. However, much of what Martin points out is symbolic in nature.
The strength in this work is its finding that presidents have increasingly appointed women to their administrations. Martin carefully denotes these appointments and the resonance they have had for the role of women in the greater society. She also carefully demarcates how presidents have discussed issues related to women (for example, women in the workforce). However, she finds that often this discussion is just that: words without action. The symbolic representation denoted through the appointments often does not lead to the substantive policy changes that would do more to advance the role of women in society. This lack of policy enactment, or in some senses a lack of presidential crafting of the issues to accomplish such ends, has left the impression that women have advanced to the high levels of power but are still devoid of actual power. Martin makes this last point quite convincingly in her concluding chapter where she points out that in looking at the status of women during the George H. W. Bush and Clinton administrations, "it does not take long to discover that some of the same issues that were discussed in the final report of Kennedy's President's Commission on the Status of Women in 1963 remain on the national agenda—equal pay, child care, tax credits in support of child care, health care for children, volunteer service, social security protection for women, and broadened educational opportunities" (250).
In weaving this narrative about women and the presidency, Martin allows us to draw much broader insights into the presidency itself. We see that presidents have affected women and their role in society in areas that they themselves can control, such as appointments. Presidents have either not chosen to or failed to advance issues that would aid women in society. Arguably, presidents are in a much weaker position to control or promote issues along these lines since they must rely on Congress to enact such initiatives. Martin, however, waits until the last chapter to make this important institutional point.
One of the strengths of this book is the way it views the subject matter through an institutional lens; but the reader must wait until the end to see this understanding played out. Although admittedly a minor critique, the study's strengths could have been enhanced by integrating the author's institutional vision more fully throughout the book. It is this aspect that is the most fascinating part of her tale of the evolution of the presidency in relation to women in society. Furthermore, this aspect is all the more telling when one concludes that although the trend of appointing more women has increased over time, the actual positions to which they are appointed tend to remain at the lower levels of the power structure. Therefore, Martin's real conclusions about [End Page 537] women's status also resonate with those of other scholars of women in politics, who often chide political actors that the "gains" women have made are still in their infancy when it comes to attaining true avenues for power, change, and equality.
Martin's evidence of appointment of women to these lower levels of presidential administrations also calls into question why presidents have not chosen women more regularly to be a part of...