Now ordinary women can get high and mighty just like ordinary men

July 29, 1999|By Susan Ager

ONCE upon a time, a woman had to be extraordinary to start with and make extraordinary choices, to have influence in any enterprise larger than a family.

A woman of achievement had to start young to set herself apart. She had to focus on her goals without wavering. And she most often had to forgo marriage and children, which would sap her energies.

Now, finally, ordinary women making ordinary choices are able to do remarkable things, while ordinary men give them a hand.

Eileen Collins, 42, is the first woman to command a NASA space shuttle mission. She grew up in public housing, worked as a pizza waitress to pay for her own flying lessons and, like millions of other ordinary Americans, began her education at a community college.

Her husband, Pat Youngs (note that she didn't take his name), is a Delta pilot who, with a nanny and baby-sitters, helps care for their 3-year-old daughter.

Carleton Fiorina, 44, is the new president and chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard, the nation's second-largest computer company. She dawdled in her youth, marrying and divorcing young, dropping out of law school, even going off to Italy to teach English.

She helped raise two stepdaughters, now adults, after her marriage to AT&T exec Frank Fiorina (note that she did adopt his name). He recently took early retirement, at age 48, to make their home life better.

I hope these women's achievements seem as extraordinary to them as they do to me, age 45.

A generation ago, when we were on the brink of adulthood, you couldn't be a woman and an astronaut simultaneously. You couldn't dream as a girl of sitting on the U.S. Supreme Court because no woman ever had. If you talked of running a Fortune 500 company that made anything but cosmetics, your girlfriends laughed at you.

Back then, as we watched the Watergate hearings on TV, the only women we saw were clerks and aides and the glamorous wife of John Dean. This time, during President Clinton's impeachment hearings, we saw women who were impassioned legislators and presidential attorneys.

In the old days of our youth, men ran everything, including schools where only women taught children and hospitals where only women nursed the ill.

It's hard to believe how circumscribed women's jobs were until you remember that old brainteaser: A man and his son are in a car crash. The man is killed instantly. His son is rushed to an emergency room, where the doctor on duty shouts: "Oh my God! It's my son!" How can this be?

Trust me, folks: When I was growing up, people had to think hard to figure that out.

Now our president's physicians are women.

Now we can imagine a woman as president, as heart transplant surgeon, as billion-dollar deal maker -- as everything except pope.

What's next for women? More choices. Data show more women are saying "no" without qualms to marriage and motherhood.

Social critic Barbara Ehrenreich calls this "a big biological change." She says: "We did our job. We overstocked the earth. . . . As women, we can [now] say that each of us individually does not have to bear children.

"That opens up all kinds of freedoms."

Soon, nothing a woman does will seem extraordinary because ordinary women will be doing everything.

Susan Ager is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press.

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