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A turn in the century invites a look into the future as much as it prompts a nostalgic glance backward, and there have been many predictions on what women's role will be in the 21st century.

Trouble is, the projected scenarios sometimes look as if everyone has been indulging in a little too much millennium cheer.

There are those who say women will not be just equal to men in the coming decades, they probably will surpass them, because nature has prepared us better to deal with the way society will work in the future.

There are others who see women retreating to what they do best, bearing and rearing children.

Another theory floating around is that the march to equality has stalled somewhere between giving birth and climbing the corporate ladder and women have gone as far as they can reasonably expect.

Women are in a full scale retreat, say those monitoring the plight of females in Afghanistan, in the brothels of the exotic Far East and on the battlefields of Chechnya and the Balkans.

In truth, no one knows where women will be 50 or 100 years from now. But Pamela McCorduck and Nancy Ramsey say it can be anywhere they want. It's up to them.

In "The Futures of Women: Scenarios for the 21st Century," the authors list enough indicators to convince us that women are unlikely to achieve equality with men very soon. For example, in 25 years women increased their presence among corporate leaders by 4 percent and their seats in Congress from 2 percent to 6 percent. At this rate, the authors say, it will take women a couple hundred more years to reach any kind of power parity with men.

The number of women elected to national legislatures worldwide has dropped by a quarter in the past decade, leading McCorduck and Ramsey to wonder if women won't reach some low-level political plateau and stay there forever.

They see good omens and bad. The promise of change "is in the heads of women" everywhere in the world as a result of two decades of international networking, and many in the western world think the feminist revolution has been won. But they also see an erosion of rights in everything from the weakening of affirmative action and reproductive rights in the United States to the oppression of women in Islamic countries.

McCorduck and Ramsey say "some real gains, and an equal amount of window dressing, have comforted and distracted women while their rights are slipping away, and sexual equality recedes steadily over the horizon."

A global economy is weakening nation states that provide the laws and enforcement to advance the status of women, the authors say, and organizations through which women exert group effort and power are in decline.

Nothing is carved in stone as far as McCorduck and Ramsey are concerned. Women's progress is moving glacially but it can be accelerated if women are aggressive in shaping their own future.

The authors clearly favor a scenario they call "The Golden Age of Equality," a utopia in which a balance between family and work has been achieved stimulating greater creativity and productivity. This world is organized into regional trade areas, with stable nation states that encourage educational and technical advances, peaceful resolution of conflicts, environmental protection and moderate population growth. In this milieu "men and women can begin to think of women as different from, but not less than, men."

Anthropologist Helen Fisher says it will be obvious that women are not less than men in a future in which their "natural" talents will give them the edge. Women come out of womb with all the physical paraphernalia that makes them better at language, at seeing the big picture, at long-range planning, at working cooperatively and at keeping in touch with their feelings.

The author of "The First Sex: The Natural Talents of Women and How They Are Changing the World" says current trends in commerce, communications, education and social services "suggest that tomorrow's world will need the female mind."

As companies move from hierarchical management structures to team playing, women's capacity for nurturing and consensus building will put them in charge. In Fisher's utopia, women will help solve the world's problems and keep the home fires burning. "If ever there was a time in human evolution when both sexes had the opportunity to make satisfying careers and happy marriages that time is now."

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