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People who are accelerating our culture and advancing the conversation – for good or for ill. You may not have heard of them yet – but eventually everyone will.

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Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert

Source: Getty

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When Will the U.S. Have a Female Defense Secretary?

Why you should care

It’s only a matter of time before a U.S. president names a woman to run the Pentagon. Get to know the women who could earn that nod.

Women are a relatively rare breed at big international security conferences, which tend to be crawling with men in uniform. So when the defense ministers of Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany — all of whom are female — got together last month on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, a gathering of top security officials from around the world, it created a bit of a stir.

The addition of Italy’s Roberta Pinotti to the defense minister ranks only amplified the chatter about how women are shaking up Europe’s staid national security policy sphere. Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, the Dutch defense minister, told the Guardian that Neelie Kroes, a famous Dutch female politician, ”once said to me that old boys networks are the oldest form of cartels we have in Europe. She was right, but things are changing, and women can do similar things now.”

5 Caucasian women smiling in front of the cameras

Source: John Thys/AFP/Getty

L-R: Defense ministers Mimi Kodheli (Albania), Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert (Netherlands), Ursula von der Leyen (Germany), Ine Marie Eriksen Soreide (Norway), and Roberta Pinotti (Italy) at NATO headquarters, Brussels, Feb. 26, 2014

Maybe the old boys club is changing in Europe, where parliamentary systems generally require prime ministers to select their cabinets from among their fellow members of parliament (functionally limiting the pool to politicians) and the political influence of the armed forces is limited. But not so far in the United States.

Despite a series of female secretaries of state and national security advisers, no U.S. president has ever appointed a woman as secretary of defense.

Could that happen in our lifetime? American defense experts say it’s not a question of a lack of talent — there are plenty of women in government now or in the recent past who have served in high-ranking security roles. Many such women have proven their mettle as policy experts and administrators, as well as their ability to navigate D.C politics. Since Ronald Reagan came to office more than 30 years ago, those are exactly the sort of skills presidents seek out in nominees to the Pentagon’s top post.

So if they won’t pick them, we will. Below, OZY takes a look a few up-and-coming women in the defense and homeland security world who make up a strong U.S. bench of female security players a president could one day tap to lead the Defense Department.

Deborah Lee James, Secretary of the Air Force

Deborah speaking with military officer standing behind her

Source: Corbis

Deborah Lee James

James was confirmed as the Air Force’s 23rd secretary in December — the second female secretary in the service’s history. James takes over at a time when the Air Force has been shaken by a mounting cheating scandal among the airmen responsible for operating the nation’s nuclear warheads and ongoing problems combating sexual assault. Given questions about the service’s treatment of women, there was growing speculation ahead of James’ nomination last August that the president would appoint a woman to the post to help restore the Air Force’s reputation.

James addressed both issues in her recent State of the Air Force address, saying her top focus as secretary is personnel — finding and placing ”the right people in the right job at the right time.”

In James, the Air Force has someone at the helm with deep experience in both the public and private sectors, something that can come in handy when dealing with the multi-billion defense industry. (Before her appointment, she was a senior executive at Science Applications International Corp., a $4 billion engineering firm and major defense contractor based in Northern Virginia, for more than a decade.)

But she started her career in government — working on Capitol Hill for the House Armed Services Committee for a decade beginning in 1983, before moving to the Pentagon, where she served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs during President Bill Clinton’s administration. That knowledge of two of Washington’s most opaque institutions and her ties to the defense industry could be an asset to any president looking for a future secretary of defense.

Christine Wormuth, nominated to be Under Secretary of Defense for Policy

Christine speaking at podium with WHITE HOUSE seal behind her

Source: Corbis

Christine Wormuth

She may be only in her 40s, but Wormuth is already something of a grizzled Defense Department veteran. She nabbed her first job, in the Pentagon’s policy office, in 1996. And now she’s awaiting Senate confirmation as President Obama’s nominee to be the third-highest ranking civilian in the massive agency. The under secretary for policy has long been a key player in shaping the big-picture defense strategy, and in making the tough calls on competing national security interests. Wormuth is already an instrumental player on that front as one of the Pentagon’s current deputy under secretary of defense, responsible for strategy and force development.

But to keep moving up the ranks, she will need to overcome resistance from veteran Republican Sen. John McCain, who was not at all happy with her or other nominees’ testimony at a recent congressional hearing and has put a hold on her nomination, blocking it from going forward.

In between stints in the Defense Department and White House and Congress, Wormuth has proven her chops as a security policy thinker in academic settings and think tanks, suggesting she could bring a more cerebral touch to the post along with the sort of lengthy public service experience past presidents have looked for in their Pentagon chief.

Kelly Ayotte, Republican Senator from New Hampshire

Kelly sitting speaking with her arms up in a leather chair

Source: Corbis

Kelly Ayotte

So inseparable were McCain, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Independent Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut last decade that the Capitol Hill press corps began referring to them as the “three amigos.” So when Lieberman retired in 2012, people wondered — only half in jest — if the remaining pair of national security hawks would be able to survive, much less thrive, when the politics seemed to be moving further and further away from their particular brand of interventionist foreign policy.

Then Ayotte picked up the baton as the third amiga. She joined McCain and Graham in leading the public criticism of then-United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice for her comments on the September 2011 attacks on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya as well as in the budget-slashing effects of the sequester on U.S. military spending and, most recently, in pointing the finger at Obama for failing to deter Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.

The former lawyer became New Hampshire’s first female attorney general in 2004 and rode the tea party political wave to victory in New Hampshire’s 2010 Senate race. Now she sits on both the Senate’s Armed Services and Homeland Security committees and is outspoken about issues before both committees.

With presidents turning to politicians more and more to fill the defense secretary post (current Secretary Chuck Hagel and former Secretaries Leon Panetta, Donald Rumsfeld and William Cohen all previously served in Congress), Ayotte is building the sort of legislative repertoire that could catch the eye of the next Republican president.

None of these women may end up being secretary of defense, but no president can argue this particular glass ceiling is due to a dearth of qualified candidates.

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Meet The Author Emily Cadei

Emily covers government, world affairs, business and sports for OZY. California-bred and D.C. based, she's reported from four of the world's seven continents -- still waiting for a byline from South America, Australia and Antarctica!

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