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Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2008

Unconventional American and Asian women

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — There are nonreductionist ways of looking at modern women. One is to view them as Warrior Queens. These women do not deny their biology or ignore its potentials but equip themselves to play ball with the big boys on a playing field that has grown more level by the decade.

Last week the Democratic National Convention, while nominating Barack Obama as its candidate for the White House, impressively put on stage women whose natural talents and educational achievements put them on equal ground with any man: Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama, for example. Both gave superb speeches. Both received superb educations. Hillary did her undergraduate work at Wellesley College, a top-flight undergraduate institution founded for women, and then graduated from Yale Law School.

Mrs. Obama is no slouch either, to say the least. First it was Princeton, for an honors degree in Sociology and African Studies, and then off to another pretty good law school — Harvard.

There was a third Woman Warrior at Denver who actually has more degrees than either of the above. Jill Biden, wife of the vice presidential nominee, has doctorate from the University of Delaware and two master's degrees. For decades, the talented and committed Mrs. Biden has been a high school and college teacher, including a stint working with emotionally disturbed teenagers.

The correlation between success for a woman and the need for a woman to be very well educated is the bottom line of this column. Take a look at the heroic Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner closeted for years in her home in Burma on orders from the junta. Her academic credentials include Delhi University and then St. Hugh's College at Oxford, England, where she met her husband, the late Michael Aris.

The equally charismatic Benazir Bhutto, assassinated last year upon her return from exile to Pakistan, did her undergraduate work at Radcliffe College in the United States then went on to Oxford for the classic PPE degree: philosophy, politics and economics. Like Suu Kyi, Benazir would have been one sharp cookie even if she had received nothing more formal than home schooling. But it doesn't hurt the self-confidence to rub cranial neurons with some of the best minds around.

Also on my list of favorite contemporary women who are probably smarter than me is Ton Nu Thi Ninh, perhaps the best-known political woman in Vietnam of her generation.

Ambassador Ton Nu was educated at the Sorbonne in Paris and then at Cambridge University in England. At both Saigon and Paris Universities, "Ninh" taught English and English literature. Not only is her French and (of course) her Vietnamese better than mine (which are basically nonexistent), her English is at least as good.

In Washington for about the last 10 or so years, the tiny Republic of Singapore posted a larger-than-life woman who everyone agrees is among the best and the brightest in the international diplomatic corps. Known for her twin abilities to be either as diplomatically light as a Mozart string quartet or as crushingly blunt as Wagner's Brunhilda and her eight Valkyries, Chan Heng Chee nailed a master's degree from Cornell and her doctorate from the National University of Singapore. The latter is one of the most intellectually rigorous schools in Asia.

Not all of these impressive women are alike, to be sure. Some are the offspring of political dynasties; some were born with family wealth to ride on; and others came up the hard-scrabble way by scholarship to advance their way through the fanciest educational institutions on Earth.

It's not easy being a woman in a man's world, no matter how privileged or lucky. Hillary Clinton didn't quite make the top of the mountain this year, but she's already a memorable, historic figure no matter what the future brings. Sen. Obama may or may not become the 44th U.S. president, but whatever happens, it's safe to assume we haven't heard the last from his wife Michelle.

Syndicated Columnist Tom Plate, on leave from UCLA, has one master's degree. His wife Andrea, a professional social worker at the U.S. Veteran's Administration, has two. © 2008 Pacific Perspectives Media Center.

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