11/02/2010 05:21 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Women Are Off to the Races

There's a small but incredibly telling scene in the new film Secretariat that has women of a certain age chuckling, somewhat ruefully, about how things used to be. Diane Lane, portraying the housewife-turned-sportswoman Penny Chenery, is trying to resuscitate her father's moribund horse farm and so, being savvy, seeks the counsel of a well-placed Virginia businessman for advice.

To do that, she has no choice but to enter an all-male gentleman's club at lunchtime, shocking the patrons and sending the lone female in the place, an unintentionally ironic sort of gatekeeper charged with keeping all other women out, into a tizzy.

Lane, unperturbed, takes her seat at the table, both literally and figuratively. The significance of this wasn't lost on my daughters, aged 8 and 4, who took in the scene with a sort of curious bemusement.

"Why won't they let her in, Mommy?" whispered my older daughter.

Why, indeed. I flashed back onto that moment in Secretariat when, the following week, I attended a new members' reception for the Jacksonville Women's Network, an organization first founded just a few years after Secretariat took the Triple Crown. The big issue of the day that sparked the club's formation was the Equal Rights Amendment -- and the order of the day was second-class citizenship for women everywhere.

As the JWN website points out: "In Jacksonville, the University Club was the only private club to allow women full membership. Not the River Club, nor the Yacht Club, nor Timaquana, nor the Seminole... why women were not even allowed to join the Civitan or Rotary Clubs! Women earned 57 cents for each 1 dollar men earned. Few women were members of the larger law firms since women had been admitted on an equal basis to the University of Florida Law School only during that decade. The "right to choose" ... Woman's right to a legal abortion had become a choice by the Supreme Court decision just five years earlier in 1973."

And of course, there was only a smattering of women holding public office. The idea of a woman credibly seeking high office, or even the presidency, was laughable -- literally.

Things would change very slowly. As late as 1982, Jacksonville's River Club continued to exclude women, making headlines when freelance New York Times photographer Judith Gelber tried to enter the club to cover a meeting of bank executives and was promptly shown the door.

That's why it's all the more remarkable, as we watch the candidates for office around the country joust and jockey during this raucous midterm election, to notice two important trends.

First, women seem to have passed through a sort of political sound barrier. From Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina in California, to Nikki Haley in South Carolina, Alex Sink here in Florida, Linda McMahon in Connecticut, and many more -- these candidates' positions may be hotly debated by the voters, but no one is debating anymore their validity to run in the first place -- and win. The 2008 election changed that calculus forever. Women are in the arena, and isn't it about time?

Second, despite the slew of high-profile female candidates this cycle, independent analysts conclude that overall, women are slated to lose ground this election, with the percentage of women in Congress expected to decline for the first time in decades. And women who do run are often subjected to sexist media coverage and intense scrutiny of their appearance and personal lives, problems male politicians face much less frequently.

Still, the game has changed. It's unlikely we'll ever again see a scenario such as the one that occurred on Meet the Press during the 1984 campaign when Ted Koppel asked Geraldine Ferraro:

"Do you think that in any way the Soviets might be tempted to try to take advantage of you simply because you are a woman?"

After Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, and Hillary Clinton, I doubt any journalist could ever credibly question a female politician that way again.

Jacksonville's River Club, still a prime spot for power lunching, elected its first female president in 2006.

And in the darkened theatre, I whispered a muddled response to my 8-year-old: "Honey, men and women didn't used to be treated the same the way they are now."

"Well, that's stupid!" she stage-whispered back.

That's my girl.

To learn more about challenges and resources for women seeking public office, visit here.