The balance of power between men and women has changed radically as Hillary Clinton has moved from first lady to senator to candidate for president, but the cliches persist: Neither the woman nor the country is ready for a female commander in chief. It's just not fair for the men to pile on the woman, even in a presidential debate. It's not fair when the candidates line up on stage and only one of them is a woman.
But in truth, the balance of power is shifting in favor of women. Men may act as if it's still a man's world, but women are ascending, and there's nobody stopping them but themselves. They've got the wind at their back, filling their sails. (Have we forgotten any cliches?)
There are more women than men on the college campus. Women make up the majority in both medical and law schools. Who dares put down a woman today for showing her smarts? Two women have served as secretary of state, and a woman is speaker of the House of Representatives. What's different now is that women have more choices than men. They can have the babies and work, they can work without having babies, or they can have babies without work.
We make over the female "firsts," but rarely examine those firsts in the context of the varied life now open to women. Not so long ago, a woman who turned 60, as Hillary just did, faced a life of diminished physical and intellectual abilities and opportunities. Not for her a prosperous and interesting future stretching out for years ahead. Now women, commuting to a different timetable, feel fresh surges of energy just when their husbands retire.
The responsibilities and demands of child raising have changed, and women are freer to work when their children are young. Once it was assumed that a child shouldn't start schooling before 5, but now the culture suggests that it's considerably better for a child to play with other children at 4 -- or even 3, guided by teachers -- than to stay home in front of a television set. Children mature earlier. Boys, especially, require more physical activity at an early age than girls. It's important to get them out of the house, and that frees their mothers for other things.
The idea of a woman as commander in chief still startles a lot of both men and women. Women are thought to be squeamish about using brute force, more reluctant to use disciplined violence to compel behavior. But maybe that's a straw woman, too. Men are just as likely to oppose the war in Iraq as women, though fighting a war is still a man's job. Judging from what's currently available, particularly in Hillary's party, a woman seems more likely than a man to dispatch men to a necessary war. The question of a woman as commander in chief is not about "women," but a specific woman. Indira Gandhi had no problem with going to war; neither did Margaret Thatcher. Golda Meir was as tough as any Israeli man. In a race between Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani, sexual differences are likely to be the least of it. Who we trust to best protect the country from terrorists is crucial, and that goes to experience and strong leadership, not sex.
Our myths about heroic women show them to be as tough (or as weak) as men in confronting power. Anthony and Cleopatra shared responsibility for their defeat. Lady Macbeth orchestrated her husband's downfall. Delilah's scissors brought about Samson's blindness, and it was she who blinded him before she cut his hair.
One of the chief arguments against women's suffrage was that women couldn't compete with men in the workplace, but we've learned that's not true. The New York Times reports that young women are out-earning their male counterparts in several major cities. Women compete, but compete differently. They're not less aggressive, but aggressive in different ways. The male chauvinist boss typically criticizes, interrupts and questions another's judgment. (Isn't that just like a man?) The female chauvinist boss can be more devious, mincing words, criticizing through malevolent gossip and furtive backbiting. Anyone who has ever worked for a woman in an environment made up mostly of women (as I once did at Vogue magazine) knows the she-devil wears Prada, after all.
Feminists held up the Amazon archer as the model of tough warrior, who proved her mettle by cutting off a breast to get it out of the way of her bow, the better to send an arrow speeding toward the heart of a foe. That was mere myth. Real women fight with their talent, their grit and their spunk. Look around you. Women are doing all right.