I did not always agree with her politics and most of her policies, but I must say that I always felt a thrill when I saw television pictures of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arriving in some capital, the name of which most Americans could not pronounce. This gigantic jet would roll to a stop and various local leaders would stand in all their military finery at the base of the stairs. The door to the big bird would swing open and out would pop what the Irish would call “this mere slip of a girl.”
U.S.A! U.S.A! U.S.A!
Now I know Secretary Rice was neither “mere” nor “a slip” nor, strictly speaking, “a girl.” She was educated, smart, experienced and toned by hours of exercise. But, like it or not, she was my secretary of state, and I got a kick out of watching some of those thugs running other countries as they kowtowed to my countrywoman and representative. Those scenes made me proud in a tingly way. I feel the same way about Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and did, too, about Madeleine Albright. They are symbols of what my country should be — and will be.
Moving on to election night 2012 and the days and analysis that followed. First there was the usual denigration of the loser in the race for president; suddenly it was all the fault of Mitt Romney, at least according to the conservative punditry, who were calling him an inspiring winner 24 hours earlier. Then there was the piling-on and group-think about “demographics” with its corollaries “Latino vote” and “youth vote.”
“Women’s vote,” I think, was already taken for granted. There are more female voters than there are male voters; women voted for President Obama over Romney. There will now be 20 women in the U.S. Senate. Yawn! We all knew that already, right?
Maybe, but political numbers were only part of what may be destined to be the biggest story of this new American century. We are going from “The Year of the Woman” — that was 1992 — to decades of the woman. I know that many women, for example, Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, have emphasized that women should be 50 percent of the political power structure. True enough, but that will happen, even if it takes some decades.
And it is not only politics anymore. Skipping to the business pages, there are photographs of women every day, taking over a company or a government agency or starting a new enterprise, taking the leadership of a cultural agency or movement. Women are demanding combat roles and attendant promotion tracks in the military. When the woman who ran the Securities and Exchange Commission resigned, she was replaced by another woman. Amazing, really. And irreversible, I think. We all benefit — maybe some old white men don’t like it — from drilling into this enormous and relatively new talent pool.
This century is going to be dominated by education, innovation and talent. We are in the process of doubling the American talent pool. The same thing is happening to a greater or lesser degree all around the world. “Human capital” is the phrase they use on business pages. “Destiny,” I’d say. Obviously, there have been prominent women around the world at various times, but mostly — say Queen Victoria, Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, Sen. Margaret Chase Smith — they inherited power from fathers or husbands, were part of dynasty rather than destiny. Justice Elena Kagan and Sen. Warren came, like most Americans, from nowhere.
Part of my perspective on all this comes from teaching at a great university, the University of Southern California. In a Masters-level journalism course, I looked out at the class last week and counted heads: 33 of 40 students are women. It is not that they all intend to become journalists; many are planning business careers. They want to write well, understand how the media work, and how media technology is changing and what that will mean in their careers.
Perhaps more important, the female enrollment in engineering and science classes is pushing toward 30 percent. You notice that if you are, as I am, a graduate of an engineering school where there were no women. Zero. They will be the Nobel Prize winners of this American century.
Richard Reeves is a syndicted columnist.