Rosa Gumataotao Rios is the current United States Treasurer.

Rosa Gumataotao Rios is the current United States Treasurer. White House via YouTube

Why All of the U.S. Treasurers Since 1949 Have Been Women

For the last six decades, presidents have treated the treasurer position as a low-risk, high-visibility job that promotes the appearance of diversity while rewarding a loyal supporter.

When Janet Yellen made history last year by becoming the first female chair of the Federal Reserve, economists and women’s advocates alike cheered the move. But Yellen’s victory also renewed scrutiny of the gender gap in top financial positions. While other departments such as Commerce and Interior have welcomed female chiefs into their ranks, the Fed and Treasury continue to be populated mostly by graying white men.

However, this oft-repeated narrative of Finance-as-Boys'-Club is incomplete, leaving out the little-known but important fact that every U.S. Treasurer—whose name graces every printed U.S. dollar—has been a woman for the last 60 years. Several of those women have been Latina; one was African American.

At best, this tidbit of information has been just that—an interesting tidbit with little context, with no explanation proffered for this unbroken pattern of solely female treasurers. After seeking out the insight of a feminist economist, a social psychologist, and government scholar, here's my try.

For the last 60 years, U.S. presidents—both Republican and Democratic—have treated the treasurer position as a low-risk, high-visibility job that promotes the appearance of diversity while rewarding a loyal supporter. In other words, the trend has to do with political favoritism, precedent, ceremony, and a bit of (well-intentioned) tokenism.

Let’s start with the first.

President Harry S. Truman started the tradition in 1949 when he appointed Georgia Neese Clark, who campaigned for the Democrats in her Republican home state of Kansas. (The position of treasurer has existed since 1775.) By naming Clark as treasurer, Truman rewarded her loyalty and acknowledged the Democrats’ debt to the votes of women, who had joined the workforce in droves by the end of World War II. The job, like many ambassador positions, has continued to be awarded to women with a history of political activism.

So why did a streak of female treasurers continue uninterrupted after Truman appointed Clark?

“Once there’s a woman appointed in a position, it’s easy to assume that position is one that could be filled by a woman,” says Jennifer Lawless, who directs the Women and Politics Institute at American University. “Once an initial ceiling is broken, once an initial piece of progress is made, there is a tendency to continue down that path.”

Such is the allure of precedent. Once Clark proved herself capable of excelling at a certain position, future presidents felt less inclined to return to the way things used to be, Lawless said.

It’s also worth mentioning that the U.S. treasurer is a more ceremonial job distinct from the powerful treasury secretary—a position that has only ever been held by white men, currently by Jack Lew of meme-worthy signature fame. Current treasurer Rosa Gumataotao Rios, the sixth Latina ever to hold the position, advises top Treasury and finance officials and directly oversees the U.S. Mint and the Bureau of Printing and Engraving. But Rios cannot create fiscal policy the way Lew or Yellen can, nor is her job as crucial to the functioning of the administration as theirs is. Ever since a woman was first appointed, the treasurer position has seen long stretches of vacancies—totaling 3,359 days, or nine years.

So far, all of this points to an ugly, hackle-raising word—tokenism. Rios herself has rejected this assertion.

Part of the decision to choose women and minorities for the treasurer position can boil down to “optics,” according to Alice Eagly, a social psychologist at Northwestern University who has published extensively on women and leadership. Eagly notes that it’s easier for presidents to actively engineer diversity with less-scrutinized positions like treasurer, compared with say, Yellen’s job, for which she wasn’t even the first pick.

But the overall picture softens when you consider that, in addition to their official duties, treasurers also work as ambassadors for economic development in lower-income or underserved communities where the Treasury wants to foster growth. Viewed in this light, “optics” is not a bad thing, according to Heidi Hartmann, an economist and the founder of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Marginalized communities, says Hartmann, tend to be deeply suspicious of the government’s financial institutions. (Also part of the Treasury? The IRS.)

So the administration and underserved communities benefit from the treasurer having a minority as a figurehead. President George W. Bush’s appointee, Anna Escobedo Cabral helped displaced victims of Hurricane Katrina who lost access to federal benefit payments and their bank accounts after the storm. Combine Cabral’s profile as a Mexican-American with her working-class upbringing, and she becomes instantly relatable as a spokesperson for promoting financial literacy.

While treasurers aren’t exactly heavyweights in the fiscal world, they’re far from ornamental. Figurehead political positions filled by both men and women abound and can be leveraged to great effect if wielded intelligently. As Lawless points out: “The average American doesn’t know the difference between Janet Yellen’s position and treasurer.” In an oddly serendipitous way, the ignorance of the American public can work to the advantage of women seeking economic positions in the future. Substance might not matter, but appearances do.  “If American people see women in positions of economic power, it can help change the perception that women are not qualified for those kinds of jobs,” Lawless says. On the other end, treasurers can use their visibility and strong community ties to eventually run for political office.

“Women [and minorities] need these positions that are kind of earmarked for them,” until broader diversity becomes the rule, not the exception, says Hartmann, the economist. Rare, symbolic positions like the treasurer will—and should—continue to exist, as long as parity remains a goal that sits on an ever-receding horizon.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.