After taking primary season criticism over the number of women in its upper ranks, the campaign of Barack Obama has significantly ramped up its hiring of women in senior staff positions.
The move appeared aimed, in part, at reversing what one top aide said was a "bit of a bad rap" for running a male-dominated campaign organization.
Prominent women activists said that, through the primary season, they had taken note of a gender imbalance in the campaign’s top echelon, particularly when compared to that of Hillary Rodham Clinton's operation, but were pleased to see the presumptive Democratic nominee hiring more women.
"We could have more, and I think there will be more," said Kate Michelman, a former head of NARAL Pro-Choice America who endorsed Obama in February after initially supporting former Sen. John Edwards. "There needs to be more. But I know that Sen. Obama also knows that and sees that and is deliberately and carefully doing that."
Anita Dunn, a consultant who joined the Obama campaign in February as a senior strategist, acknowledged a problem but said it was one of perception, not reality.
"This campaign has gotten a bit of a bad rap, since the reality is, when the initial discussions were going on about whether he should run, there were women at the table," Dunn said. "At every key strategic meeting, there are women at the table whose voices are being heard. This is a campaign with a large number of accomplished women."
Indeed, from the start, Obama's inner circle included Valerie Jarrett and Penny Pritzker, powerful and well-connected Chicago businesswomen. Through the first year of the campaign, women held about a half-dozen top positions, such as lead fundraiser, chief operating officer and policy director. But the chain of command — from the campaign manager to the chief strategist to key deputies, pollsters and media consultants — was so testosterone-heavy that some in the traveling press corps dubbed it a "boys' club."
That point was alluded to by McCain communications director Jill Hazelbaker on Thursday when she criticized Obama national press secretary Bill Burton for attempting to get campaign counsel Bob Bauer onto a McCain campaign conference call. Burton made the request in an e-mail sent to Hazelbaker, but blind-copied to the media, just minutes before the call was to start. "This type of boys' club bullying embodies an arrogance better suited for a frat house than a serious campaign about serious issues," she said.
Now, though, as the Obama campaign moves into the general election phase and both parties aggressively pursue Clinton supporters, women have assumed more prominent roles — one in a series of efforts aimed at speaking to this key constituency.
In addition to Dunn, former television journalist Linda Douglass recently became a senior adviser and traveling press secretary, adding a high-ranking woman who is expected to take a more prominent role on television. Her presence will give the campaign a more feminine face than the one offered over the past year, when chief strategist David Axelrod and communications director Robert Gibbs did most of the talking.
In the last week alone, three more women came on board: former Clinton campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle, who will serve as chief of staff to the vice presidential nominee; Stephanie Cutter, the communications director for Democrat John F. Kerry's 2004 campaign, who will serve as a senior campaign adviser and top aide to Michelle Obama; and Edwards' Iowa state director, Jen O'Malley Dillon, who will be battleground states director.
The campaign has also hired, but not yet announced, a woman to serve as director of rapid response, Dunn said. Politico reported earlier this month that it would be Christina Reynolds, Edwards' former research director.
The latest additions put more women in senior positions in Obama's campagn than in John McCain's, but not many more: The Democrat counts more than a dozen women in his upper ranks, but the presumptive Republican nominee is not far behind, with 10.
One of them is Carly Fiorina, the economic adviser who was formerly CEO of Hewlett-Packard. Fiorina has become a high-profile surrogate as McCain looks for support among Clinton voters, making appearances on TV, at town halls and in conference calls.
Still, both campaigns remain overwhelmingly male at the very top, making it the first presidential contest since 1996 not to have a woman managing at least one of the major party candidates.
Obama's closest aides are Axelrod, Gibbs and campaign manager David Plouffe, who have long-standing relationships with the senator and one another. Axelrod and Gibbs are a near-constant presence at Obama's side on the campaign trail, and they make frequent appearances for him on TV.
A similar dynamic holds true for McCain, whose confidants include campaign manager Rick Davis and senior advisers Charlie Black and Mark Salter.
"This is evolutionary," said Donna Brazile, who served as Al Gore's campaign manager in 2000, becoming the first African-American to lead a major presidential campaign. "The door once was pretty closed to women. I have lived through both eras. You could count the number of women and minorities on one hand, and you never got past three, and some of them were twofers."
The focus on the face of the two campaigns has been intensified by Clinton’s departure. The New York senator stacked her top management ranks with women, and her supporters said they want similar representation in the Obama campaign. Obama aides have made assurances that he wants women represented at all levels, shaping his candidacy and presidency.
"We are 53 percent of the population, and our voices need to be equally heard," said Olga Vives, executive vice president of the National Organization for Women, who attended a private meeting last week in Washington with Obama's women's outreach coordinator, Becky Carroll, and the leaders of several women's advocacy groups. "We were underrepresented. We bring a perspective that is different. It is important."
Vives and others "have taken note" of the need to add women to the senior ranks, she said, and "we are glad to see they have taken steps to correct it."
"What you need is women to be in essential positions in the campaign," including strategy, field operations, polling, fundraising and communications, said Clare Giesen, executive director of the National Women's Political Caucus, who also attended last week's meeting with the Obama campaign. "That is where the real rubber meets the road. In terms of being essential to the campaign's forward movement, that is where you want a woman's role."
Dunn said Clinton supporters who are just now getting to know Obama might not have been aware of the roles women play in the campaign. She attributes this to two factors: the primary election matchup against Clinton ("the most famous woman in the country, if not the world") and a communications department fronted by men.
"There was a recognition that as we went through the additive process that we wanted to continue to make sure there were a variety of voices and backgrounds representing the campaign publicly and sitting at the strategy table with the senator," Dunn said.
Clinton's candidacy also made it difficult to recruit women operatives, many of whom either were engaged in her campaign or sat on the sidelines, Michelman said.
"There were important pieces to put in place that were put on hold until it was clear that Sen. Obama was the nominee," she said. "Everything is a go, and they really are moving to fill out their campaign."