Welcome to the Century of Women

By Tom Brokaw • April 29, 2013

For the past year or so I’ve been saying that I think the 21st century will become known as the Century of Women, just as the 20th was widely declared to be the American Century and the 19th as the Industrial Age.

When I make that declaration in public gatherings, the applause seems to come almost entirely from women. Men don’t boo or walk out, but neither do they cheer the possibility. Perhaps this is because they accept the premise or—more likely—because they have not considered it.

Forecasting the future is a perilous exercise and I am fully aware of the difficult landscape yet to be traveled. Nonetheless, the advances are too little remarked upon or recognized.

Women now make up 20 percent of the U.S. Senate. A woman is the leader of the House Democrats. The number of women governors declined slightly in the last election, but more women are active in state politics at other levels. Three women sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. Women occupy all of New Hampshire’s top state and federal legislative offices.

The two most popular members of the recent presidential campaign were Michelle Obama and Ann Romney.

For the first time, a woman has been appointed as Head of the Secret Service. The new Director of the Securities and Exchange Commission (one of our most important regulatory agencies) is a woman.

More than half the medical and law students in America are women.

Half the Ivy League schools have women as presidents.

IBM—a bastion of the white male business establishment—is now led by a woman.

Martha Nelson is the new editor-in-chief of Time, Inc., and Jill Abramson is the editor of the New York Times.

I know, I know—it is not enough. The corner offices are still largely man caves. The Obama Administration remains male heavy. Wall Street and Main Street have more in the M column than in the F column.

As the challenges of the 21st century demand more from each of us, shouldn’t we be thinking as much about how to free up more women for the common good as we do about immigration, entitlement reform and debt reduction?

As the father of three accomplished daughters, I live with their struggle to balance career, marriage and family. One daughter is a physician in a health-oriented business. Another is a digital music entrepreneur and the third is a clinical therapist and author. They’re all educated with supportive partners and parents who have financial resources. Even so, their lives have very little breathing room.

Millions of other accomplished women are much more constrained by the absence of comparable emotional and financial support. How can we free them so we can all be the beneficiaries of their skills and strengths? Let’s put that question on the agenda as an objective of the 21st century.

To those who are understandably impatient with the progress on these vexing issues that bump up against the tides of tradition, I remember another time when the progress of a long suppressed part of our population seemed painfully slow.

I came of age professionally in the Sixties, working for a while in the South as well as in the segregated North and the racial enclaves of big cities. Racial issues, their politics and place in our popular culture have long been a prominent and deeply felt part of my journalistic and personal portfolio.

Yet I could not have imagined then we’d have by now an African American president who would—within a few hours of his second inauguration—walk only a few steps across the U.S. Capitol rotunda to pay tribute at a statue of Dr. Martin Luther King.

By the turn of the next century, who will make a journey across the Capitol rotunda? Surely there will be one or more women. If Germany or the macho states of Argentina, Brazil and Chile can break the “woman as president” barrier, how long before America catches up?

If this is—as I believe this will be— the Century of Women, it is a journey that should begin with a destination.

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