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In a Tuesday interview with Salon, National Organization of Women President Terry O’Neill blasted the White House’s approach to choosing a replacement for Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke. “The signals I’m seeing from the White House is that his advisors – and he tends to agree with them – that they are still looking for someone other than Janet Yellen,” O’Neill told Salon. “And to me that’s just pure sexist.” NOW endorsed Obama for president last July.
“I mean, there’s only two differences between Janet Yellen and all those men,” said O’Neill. “Number one, she’s more qualified than all of them are. And number two, she’s a woman. And so looking for somebody other than Janet Yellen, I don’t know how you classify that as anything but sexist.”
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Speculation about the post has centered on Yellen, the Fed’s current Vice Chair, since former Clinton Treasury Secretary and Obama Economic Advisor Larry Summers removed himself from consideration on September 15. O’Neill criticized Obama both for appearing to have favored Summers for the post, and for what she called “trial balloons being floated by White House staffers to find some man other than Janet Yellen” following Summers’ withdrawal from the process. Summers’ critics had cited his role in deregulation and his reference to “differing variances” between men and women as a cause of women’s underrepresentation in the sciences.
Before Summers “did the right thing” by bowing out, charged O’Neill, “every signal from the White House was that the president was going to bypass the better-qualified woman in favor of a less-qualified man who happened to be his friend. Huge problem.” O’Neill added, “This is exactly how the glass ceiling operates…that’s the essence of sex discrimination.”
O’Neill argued that Yellen was a better pick for the post in part because she would be more likely to consider the consequences of her decisions on “actual people” suffering from high unemployment. When it comes to a “judgment call” like whether to continue the Fed’s purchases of financial instruments, said O’Neill, the question is whether a Chair will be guided by the “understanding that unemployment has real, damaging impacts on real human lives,” or “guided by your relationships with financial institution leaders.”
“The other qualified men who could be up for this,” warned O’Neill, “I am very deeply concerned that those men may have ties to Wall Street that are simply too strong.” In contrast, said O’Neill, Yellen is “not trying to impress those boys.”
Asked about Yellen’s past support, noted in the Huffington Post, for repealing Glass-Steagall regulations and reducing future Social Security benefits through “chained CPI,” O’Neill said “they definitely concern me,” but that she wouldn’t expect Yellen to hold those stances today, “because she is evidence-based and data-based.” “There are a lot of conditions that have changed since the ‘90s,” said O’Neill.
Criticizing the White House’s perceived hesitancy to tap Yellen, “who stands head and shoulders above the others” in contention, the NOW president said, “The planet on which this happens is a planet on which men are so used to being in control that they cannot conceive of putting a woman in this position.” Asked if that criticism applies to the president personally, O’Neill answered, “Look at his behavior so far. It unfortunately does.”
While “there is no question that Barack Obama is a friend to women in the policies that he supports,” O’Neill said that “when even he has trouble picking the best qualified person who happens to be a woman, I think that is a startling reminder that even our friends who are men are so used to being in control that so far putting a woman in that position just doesn’t compute for them.” She said the episode reinforced the need to elect more female politicians, including a female president.
“This hesitancy around Dr. Yellen,” said O’Neill, “is very revealing about how far we have yet to go.”