Horrors! Girls With Gavels!

Not long ago I spoke at a meeting sponsored by a company's women's networking group. Like most other American corporations, this one had a lot of women in entry-level jobs, a fair number of women in middle management and a few women in the top ranks, in a pyramid configuration that has become commonplace.

Commonplace, too, was the response of the majority males at the top to this particular evening event. It rankled, this meeting, closed to them in the same way the ranks of management had once been closed to their distaff counterparts. It rankled, even for one night. Apparently none of them saw it as a learning experience, the possibility of imagining for just a few hours what it had been like to be female for many, many years.

This immediately called to mind Take Our Daughters to Work Day, which comes around again at the end of this month in what is its 10th anniversary. It's amazing how the event has become an institution in only a decade, with thousands of companies and millions of girls participating. And it's amazing how, almost from its inception, the opponents were all over it, complaining that it sent a bad message about female victimhood, that it was based on false research about girls and low self-esteem, above all that it was gender-biased, that the boys were not invited. The same people who weren't the least bit bothered when boys got the only decent school sports programs--or, for that matter, the entire Supreme Court--were flipping out about a bunch of 13-year-old girls eating in the corporate cafeteria for one afternoon.

"What will we tell the boys?" parents agonized. I never had a bit of trouble explaining: I just remind them that the Senate is still 87 percent male. Boys have issues and problems, too, but they're not the same as the ones girls have. We just don't start from the same place; otherwise it wouldn't be called "helping" when a man performs tasks in his own home, or "baby-sitting" when he looks after his own children. That's why the most famous remark about Take Our Daughters to Work Day is the one from Eleanor Holmes Norton; when asked why there was no such day for boys, she said it was for the same reason there's no White History Month.

Women still agonize over balancing work and family; lots of guys still assume they'll balance work and family by getting married. Boys don't have to be introduced to the office. They're old acquaintances. In a survey done for the Ms. Foundation for Women about changing roles, 61 percent of the respondents said they believe men and women are treated differently in the workplace. You can talk all you want about improved access for women now, but it's a recent development, and it still stops several steps from most executive suites.

That's not victimhood, it's history. And maybe that's what Take Our Daughters to Work Day has become, a living monument to recent history, to the peaks we've struggled up and the plateaus we're often stuck on. Some of the critics of the day insist darkly that it's part of the feminist agenda, which is always made to sound like a cross between a coven and a communist cell. (I prefer to think it is dedicated to justice, equality and comfortable shoes.) Ironic, isn't it; some of those up in arms about the program are women professionals who, if not for the very movement they decry, might have wound up plowing their ambition into casseroles and no-wax floors instead of punditry and sociological research.

There's a photograph from one Take Our Daughters to Work Day on my desk that sums it all up for me. The daughter is mine. She has a huge grin on her face, and a gavel in her hand, and standing behind her is a female federal judge. The judge is wearing a pink sweater; my daughter is wearing the judge's robes. And when I look at that picture I wonder if the judge and I were thinking the same thing, looking at that girl: that the chance of either of us hearing "woman" and "judge" in the same sentence when we were her age was just about nil. Today there are 199 women judges in the federal system; when I was 11, there were three. Present at the revolution: that's what I feel every time I look at that photograph. Every time a girl plays Little League, every time a father assumes his daughter is as likely to go to college as his son, every time no one looks twice at a female cop or balks at a female surgeon, it's a moment in history, radical and ordinary both at the same time.

Critics say that we should talk to girls about their marvelous opportunities instead of taking them out of school and promoting that pesky "feminist agenda" once a year. Pooh. Gavels speak louder than words. Besides, kids are always getting pulled out of school to go to Monticello or chocolate factories or Six Flags. How come there's an uproar only when the field trip takes girls to a place in which girls were fairly recently unheard of, unwelcome? I remember fondly my daughter toddling around my office during the first Take Our Daughters to Work Day 10 years ago with a pencil in her fist, roaring, "I'm working!" whenever anyone tried to talk to her. There are girls now who are second-generation Takers, who went to work themselves when they were teenagers and are now inviting others. The Ms. Foundation for Women has found a group of those women who say that the event had a major impact on their lives, on the way they saw themselves and envisioned their futures. One day seems a scant investment for that sort of return.

But it will be a long time before we can truly judge the full effects of the program, just as it has taken us decades to appreciate the effects of the feminist revolution. The assumption of access based on ability and not on gender that seemed utopian when we were young has now become the guiding principle of the mainstream, even when it is honored only in the breach. Take Our Daughters to Work Day is as much about our successes as it is about our continued striving. How could it not be? Our successes have remade the world. Welcome to it, girls. The boys may complain. But that will teach you something, too.