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Rosie the Riveter comes of age: Hillary Clinton and the rise of the alpha females

“Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be a challenge to others.”

– Amelia Earhart

While Hillary Clinton continues to hold a huge lead in the next presidential election – with double-digit leads against all Republican challengers in the latest CNN polls – the fact is that Clinton is only one of numerous women leaders now prominent in virtually every field, from government to sports and entertainment to non-profit work to business. For nearly a generation, American women have earned better grades and more college diplomas than men, and many of these women have now worked their way to the top.

Last year, Margaret White wrote in the Toronto Globe and Mail about “the new female elite, a group that has emerged only in the past few decades. Your great-grandmother could never have imagined the kind of life you have. Your choices are vastly different from those of all the women who came before you. And you are reshaping societies in ways nobody anticipated.”

Clinton and Janet Yellen were named as part of this new female elite. While Clinton spoke in her 2008 campaign of “breaking the glass ceiling,” the fact is the American presidency is just about the only goal women have not yet obtained. Looking around, commanding women can be seen in almost every field.

Yellen, the new head of the Federal Reserve, is not only the most powerful banker in the world, her actions can have more impact than John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie or Bill Gates ever had. For example, on the day Yellen gave her first official testimony before Congress, the Dow Jones industrial average rose by 1 percent in response, thus adding roughly $70 billion to the nation’s wealth.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel not only presides over Europe’s strongest economy, but also holds the fates of Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece in her hands because her country finances their debts.

France’s Christine Lagarde has had a succession of “firsts” in her career: the first woman chief partner of a major international law firm, the first female finance minister of a major industrial country and now the first woman to head the International Monetary Fund, which is working to defuse the Ukraine crisis.

Michelle Obama has proven herself as both a role model for working mothers and as one of the most popular first ladies ever.

In the entertainment world, women have never been more prominent: of the 14 acts that have sold more than 200 million records, five are female (Madonna, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Whitney Houston) or have female lead singers (ABBA). Back in the 1970s, there were only two actresses who could “open” a movie, Barbra Streisand and Diana Ross. Today, numerous actresses are bankable: Angelina Jolie, Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, Sandra Bullock and Jennifer Lawrence to name just a few.

Women have also made progress in the traditionally masculine business world. Today 23 companies of the Fortune 500 now have women CEOs, including Meg Whitman at Hewlett-Packard, Virginia Rometty at IBM, Indra Nooyi at PepsiCo, Marilyn Hewson at Lockheed Martin, Ellen Kullman at DuPont, Phebe Novakovic at General Dynamics and Marissa Mayer at Yahoo. Mary Barra, the new CEO of General Motors, is expected to earn about $14 million in total compensation this year. Fortune recently named her the most powerful businesswoman in the world.

Politics may have been the last field to catch up, but change is evident there, too. In the 2012 election, women were a 53 percent majority of American voters and provided President Obama’s entire narrow re-election margin. Women have been close to half of all law school graduates over the last generation and are now one-third of the Supreme Court. In 1989, there were only two women U.S. senators (one from each party). Today, there are no less than 20 female senators, and half of all states have been represented by a woman senator.

State Legislatures have traditionally been the training grounds for future government leaders. Thirty years ago, women were a mere 13 percent of legislators. As of 2014, that figure has almost doubled to 24 percent. (As one who worked in the California Legislature for nearly a decade, I can testify that women legislators were often some of the most creative and, frankly, more honest lawmakers). More women state legislators today will likely mean more women mayors, governors and members of Congress tomorrow.

This year, as University of Houston professor Richard Murray points out, women candidates will headline three of the most important races. In Kentucky, Secretary of State Alison Grimes is running even or slightly ahead of Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell. In Georgia, Michelle Nunn, the daughter of legendary Sen. Sam Nunn, has an even shot at an open U.S. Senate seat. And in Texas, Democratic State Sen. Wendy Davis, who gained national fame with a 2013 filibuster over women’s rights, starts out behind in that heavily Republican state, but hopes to attract female Republican and independent “crossover” women votes to score the upset.

If Clinton decides not to run for president, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren could easily emerge as the Democratic front-runner, with her television presence in New England giving her the edge in the New Hampshire primary and her gender providing a natural base of support.

Although a majority of women vote Democratic today, Republicans also have some talented female candidates to choose from. Beyond Sarah Palin, there’s New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, who, as a Hispanic, has even more to possibly offer a Republican ticket; South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who is of Asian descent and will likely play a big role in the 2016 Republican race due to her state’s early primary; former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte.

A century ago, women couldn’t even vote in federal elections. Today, more than 90 percent of Democrats and Republicans tell the Gallup Poll they would vote for a qualified female presidential candidate. If Clinton does run, it is possible that both major parties could feature women on their tickets.

Conservative author Steve Sailer has observed that “women, especially those with a college degree, are pretty good at knowing what they want and getting it.” What most women want can be surmised from both surveys and their actual lifestyles: a good mixture of family and work. Roughly half of American women with children under age 18 work outside the home, way up from less than 30 percent in 1960. While feminism certainly encouraged women to go to work, another plausible reason is economic: The high cost of living seems to require that most women work outside the home now.

In 1980, women earned only 64 percent of men’s median hourly wages. In 2012, that figure had increased to 84 percent, according to a Pew Research Center report. However, among women ages 18 to 29, earnings had increased to a record-high 93 percent of men the same age.

What’s behind the rise of alpha females? The answers are changing customs, changing laws and a vast improvement in educational status.

While Clinton and Obama are accurately seen as strong first ladies and role models for modern women, probably the most outspoken and prominent first lady was New York’s own Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of Franklin and the longest-ever serving first lady. Known for her strong activism on behalf of civil rights and women’s rights, Harry Truman called her the “first lady of the world.”

Even more important than her example were the experiences of women during the Depression and World War II. After Pearl Harbor, 20 million American men served in the war effort, 80 percent in the armed forces. Their replacements in plants turning out tanks, ships and planes were mostly women under age 40. Thus, the iconic Rosie the Riveter poster of the 1940s. Many of them continued to work after the war ended.

Then American laws changed. The civil rights movement gave a perhaps inadvertent boost to women’s rights with the 1964 Civil Rights Act. As originally sponsored by New York Rep. Emanuel Celler and Sens. Hubert Humphrey and Jacob Javits, the bill banned discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion and national origin. Segregationist Democratic Rep. Howard Smith of Virginia added a prohibition against discrimination by gender partly in an effort to scuttle the bill and partly because he favored helping white women over minorities. Smith’s amendment passed, President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill and women’s equality before the law was assured. Within a few years, union and government contracts included clauses mandating equal pay for women, and every public college started accepting female students.

But the biggest driver of progress has been increasing educational achievement. In the 1960 Census, men had higher education levels than women by an average of one grade. But by 1990, women were slightly ahead. However, in the 2010 Census, a significant gender gap favoring women had opened up: white women had a 5 percentage point edge over white men in college graduation rates, while black women were nearly 10 points ahead and Hispanic women 7 points more likely to graduate from college. Only among Asian-Americans were the men doing better academically.

Is there any bad news? The narrow defeat of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment in 1982 was a disappointment, but Supreme Court decisions, some written by the first woman justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, have interpreted the Civil Rights Act and the “Equal Protection” clause of the 14th Amendment to (usually) ensure gender equality before the law.

Due to lingering discrimination and the fact that working mothers often interrupt their careers to raise children, women still earn on average slightly less than men in similar jobs, while single mothers are still the poorest group in the country. And political change has come slowly: women are still underrepresented in government compared to the electorate. When I congratulated USA Today editor Victoria Sackett on all of the new women senators elected in 1992, she replied: “Thanks … and at this rate; we’ll have a majority in the Senate by 2062!”

But on the whole, the story of American women since the 1970s has been one of consistent educational and professional progress.

Regardless of whether Clinton wins in 2016, the social landscape has permanently been changed. Female leaders in numerous fields are here to stay.

Patrick Reddy is a Democratic political consultant in California. He is the co-author of “California After Arnold” and the author of the forthcoming “21st Century America,” from which this article is excerpted.