When I was little, my favorite book described options for what a girl could aspire to be when she grew up. It told of exciting career possibilities: flight attendant, nurse, teacher, secretary.
A counterpart book for boys told of their, frankly, broader and more prestigious career options: doctor, lawyer, jet pilot, policeman, fireman.
Still, my mother always told me I could be anything I wanted to be. Could I, as a girl, be president? Not according to these guide books.
I posed the presidential question to my fourth grade teacher, and I remember her response vividly. She looked uncomfortable and, clearing her throat, said, "Well now, that's a very difficult job!"
In other words, "No sweetie, you can't. No girl can be president. That's a difficult job, like doctor and lawyer."
It was about that time that Virginia Slims, the cigarette designed to ensure women a lung-cancer-death rate equal to men's, launched an ad campaign asserting, "You've Come a Long Way, Baby."
Of course, those Virginia Slims babes were dressed mostly as sex kittens, not as brain surgeons. Virginia Slims was about coming a long way up the leg from ankle-length frocks.
So women had to wonder, "Honestly, have we come a long way?"
The first of those ads ran nearly 50 years ago. Assessing women's progress in that half century, maybe we could say we've come part of the way.
Now, there are more women elected to serve in both the U.S. House and Senate than ever before. Women hold 84 seats in the House, 19.3 percent. In the Senate, 20 women serve. That's 5 percent of the seats held by the gender that accounts for 51 percent of the population.
In this case, America is definitely not number one -- particularly when compared to nations accused of oppressing women. For example, in Iraq, 26.5 percent of the seats in the national legislature are held by women, In Pakistan, it's 20.7 percent. In Afghanistan, law requires 20 percent of council seats be held by women. Even in Saudi Arabia, where women can't drive and must be accompanied by a male companion whenever they go out, women hold 19.9 percent of the elected seats -- now that they can vote and hold office.
While the United States has never had a woman president, many other countries have. That includes Iceland, India, Israel, Sri Lanka, United Kingdom, Portugal, Norway, Yugoslavia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, France, Poland, Turkey, Canada, Rwanda, Ukraine, Germany, South Korea, Peru, Denmark and Scotland.
While U.S. women hold more top corporate positions than they once did, only 23 of the CEOs at Fortune 500 companies in the United States are female. That's only 4.6 percent. And women still do not earn the same amount as men, paid only 78 cents for every dollar their male counterparts get.
Women now serve in jobs defined as male in those children's books, doctor, lawyer, fire fighter, police officer, so many that the names have changed from fireman and policeman. But few are fire or police chiefs.
Women have outnumbered men in American colleges for 35 years, and they now account for 57 percent of students in degree-granting institutions of higher education. And now men only slightly outnumber women in medical and law schools. That means a women can easily find a female divorce attorney and an ob-gyn who has a first-hand understanding of the female anatomy.
Even so, remarkably few people, male or female, get the answer to this riddle:
A man is killed and his son injured in a car crash. The boy is taken to a hospital where the emergency room surgeon announces, "I can't operate on this boy."
"Why not?" the nurse asks.
"Because he's my son," the doctor responds.
How is this possible?
The answer, of course, is that the surgeon is the boy's mother.
We might have come part way, but we've still got a long way to go.
It would be great if a leap in progress could be made over the next year and a half. I hope that in November of 2016, I'll be able honestly say to my 7-year-old son and daughter: "Look, at that woman on TV. She's going to be President of the United States! Don't let anyone tell you any job is too difficult for a woman."
And I'll read to them both one children's book describing exciting careers.
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