Leslie Hunter ‘96 spoke on experiences working as a female civil servant in D.C.

By Sarah Frazer || Staff Writer

This past Monday, F&M’s Government Department and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department co-sponsored a talk given by Leslie Hunter, an F&M alumna who graduated in 1996. Hunter described her experience working in Washington D.C. as a career civil servant from 2003 to 2017.

Hunter discussed the challenges she faced working in the male-dominated field of defense and national security. Most recently, Hunter served as the Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (DASD) for Security Cooperation; as such, she oversaw a $9 billion budget.

According to Hunter, she never thought she would have a career in national security when she went to F&M but that college prepared her well. Being able to write well is paramount when making policy decisions, since articulating oneself well helps you to get your point across and influence the decision making process. A liberal arts background provided her with good writing skills, she remarked.

Hunter explained her path to holding the position of DASD. After graduation, she eventually moved to D.C. and took an internship at the Middle East Institute. After a while, Hunter began working at CSIS, which is organized similarly to the State Department. Hunter eventually began working at the Pentagon, where one of her first assignments was to write a paper on the nuclear triad. “At the time I didn’t even know we had a nuclear triad, so there was a lot of on the job learning,” Hunter expressed.

The definition of national security is the national defense and foreign relations of the government to protect the country and its interests. Hunter outlined the four tools used to achieve national security: diplomacy, information or intelligence, military power, and economics, which includes development.

She mentioned different communities involved in national security and foreign relations, such as USAID, The State Dept., Defense Dept., civil service, among others. Furthermore, Hunter said, every community had subcultures within it; being able to work across these communities leads to a successful career. The civil service, Hunter clarified, is the professional staff of the federal government.

Hunter has worked in the civil service through four political transitions and has served under six different Secretaries of defense. She explained that transitions are never smooth, as new political appointees come in with a lot of energy, and sometimes civil servants see an opportunity to revisit an issue with the new administration. Responding to a question, Hunter explained that “Yeah, absolutely,” sometimes it was hard to work for administrations she did not agree with. Ultimately, she said, civil servants sacrifice political disagreements for job security while political appointees sacrifice job security for political agreement.

Hunter left the civil service during the Trump administration’s first year in office. According to Hunter, the administration still has many, many political appointments to make. Civil servants are tasked with working for a president, whose policy they do not understand; indeed, Hunter noted, Trump did not lay out many specifics in his campaign.

Another problem is that many of the people who have filled positions do not have much experience in government, so, if they do not do well, they assume civil servants are attempting to undermine them. In reference to conspiracy theories about a “deep state,” Hunter explained, “there is no kabal of civil servants seeking to undermine the president’s agenda.”

Yet another issue facing the Trump administration is that many Republican national security officials signed a “never trump” letter in which the national security committee wrote about their concerns about a potential Trump presidency.

According to Hunter, the relationship between the military and civil service is the worst it has been in her years in D.C. Trump likes to appoint generals because he can see the stars on their shoulders as proof of their expertise.

At this point, Hunter discussed the gender implications of Trump’s affinity for military men since these male military commanders surround themselves with other military men. Only five women have achieved 4 star status, Hunter said, so this problem will change as more do. Hunter had to face problems her male colleagues do not have to face. “Many times I’d find myself the only woman at the table,” she said. For this reason, Hunter thought “I had to be 100% confident that I’d be 100% right 100% of the time,” so that her views did not get dismissed since they were from a woman and so that she did not represent women poorly.

According to Hunter, being a woman impacted her time at the Defense Department in other ways: “When I started out at the pentagon, I modified my appearance to discourage predatory male behavior.” She explained that “the term ‘young lady’ was often used when an older gentlemen disagreed or didn’t like what I had to say.” Hunter explained that, when she became director, she would hesitate to give people orders; she would preface her request with “would you mind?” But she tried to level the playing field as much as possible as a leader and benefited from having female leaders she could look up to. Eventually, she could mostly just be a policy person, until she became a mother.

In closing, Hunter encouraged students to consider a career in national security, noting that, “your work makes headlines” and supports the national security of the country. Her advice? Find mentors, develop peer networks, and practice your writing, specifically writing succinctly and for a variety of audiences. Hunter added, it was important to “maintain a sense of humor.”

To the men, “If you’re a man, be aware of your privilege,” ask why there are not any women at the table, and call out an act of sexism. To the women, take chances. However, Hunter warned the women, “Most likely an act of sexism will happen to you.”

Junior Sarah Frazer is a Staff Writer. Her email is sfrazer@fandm.edu.

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