Here you are one of fewer than 500 women in American who holds a top level executive position. You do or say something to call attention to yourself. Out of the blue, you are caught up in a typhoon of public attention that showers shame and ridicule on your reputation and turns your life upside down. You want to hide but every move you make is reported. There is no mentor -- no Wizard of Oz -- objective enough to tell you what to do.

In such a situation, how do you think in mid-air so that you will land on your feet?

Mary Cunningham has lived that scenario over the last two weeks in the maelstrom of publicity surrounding her promotion to vice president of strategic planning at Bendix. She wasn't a Jane Cahill Pfeiffer, who held out against blunt hints that NBC wanted her to resign as chairman, until they publicly beheaded her. Nor was Mary Cunningham a Mary Crisp, who allowed the new head of the Republican Party virtually to excommunicate her for holding to the party's commitment to equal rights for women, then to humiliate her on television and send her packing -- the co-chairman of the party -- in the middle of the GOP convention.

Ultimately, Mary Cunningham called her own shots. She wasn't blind to corporate hypersensitivity to publicity, however. She knew the environment in which she did her job had been made toxic by rumors at the top, the virulence only increased by chairman William Agee's defense of her promotions before 600 people. The moment her promotion became a national news story, in effect a "test case," she sensed it would not go away: It had hit a sore point in just about every home in America. Her initial reaction was to resign. But on thinking out her strategy in mid-air, she first offered to take a leave of absence.

Recognizing the fact that a subcommittee of Bendix directors had hurriedly met in New York on Sept. 29 and came out refusing Mary's offer and expressing complete confidence in her performance, she had a few more hurdles to face back in Southfield, Mich., home of Bendix headquarters. One of the subcommittee members, Jack Fontaine, made it known privately to Agee that he felt Mary should resign because the publicity was continuing. Just one more ironic twist in the self-righteous coil that seemed to be hanging Mary for emotional nepotism: Fontaine is the son of the original Bendix president.

Realizing what she was up against, Mary herself suggested to the subcommittee that they test her effectiveness in the present climate by conducting anonymous interviews with the 10 top production and staff people at headquarters. The key questions were, number one, did they think her promotion justified by performance? "Yes," was the answer to a man. Second, had they observed any errors of judgment on her part? Given a wide-open opportunity to slam down a girl wonder, "no" was the standard reply.

And then third: Would the publicity jeopardize her effectiveness at Bendix?


Which was Mary's instinct all along. It was nailed down by one board member who gave her a personal warning: "You know, a person can be made to fail." The subcommittee held another long, intense meeting last week. Mary was not invited. Upon adjournment, the message passed along to her was very carefully phrased. No decision had been reached by the board. The only consensus was that Mary's original instinct was correct: for her to continue to work closely with Bill Agee would create an endless fountain of distracting rumor.

"Hang in there!" exhorted many of the letters from women. "Let them fire you !"

"Why hang in there," Mary thought to herself, "if there's no hope of victory?" If she couldn't function at her peak performance level, at Bendix, she wouldn't be helping the company, for sure she wouldn't be advancing her own goals, and she wouldn't be doing any favor to other women, either.

Last Thursday, she resigned.

A couple of board members who were pleased took Mary aside to say, had she reacted like "the typical emotional female," she could have hurt the company very badly.

In fact, Mary was one of the few principals involved who did not over react. Never criticizing the company nor any of its employes in public, showing almost most concern for Bill Agee's well-being than he has shown for his own, Mary Cunningham signaled over the past two weeks that she respects certain givens in the corporate code.

Indeed, given her profile -- the strict Catholic upbringing, the singular devotion to work, the absence of private life or real friends, the roar of ambition fueled by altruism and other sublimated desires, Mary Cunningham fits ideally the stereotype of life at the top of corporate America, which is most often, whether by a man or a woman, lived in a straight-jacket. The mold cut out for chief executive officer of Fortune 500 company -- a position her Harvard Business School dean predicted Mary will inhabit some time in the next 10 years -- calls for being married to the corporation. Rigid custom keeps almost all the male CEO's married to their first wives, although the relationship may afford little more intimacy than attendance at a rubber-chicken dinner. Both are necessary performances.

These sober truths about corporate life Mary must take to be self-evident. For the moment, she is occupied on another front.

If Mary Cunningham lands on her feet, she sets down a whole new role model. Don't get the idea Mary Cunningham is dead in the water. Last week she received by mail 50 job offers.

"I offered you a job a year and a half ago," said Walker Lewis, president of Strategic Planning Associates in Washington, D.C. "I offered you a job last week, and I'm offering you a job again today. Your talents haven't changed." The current position would keep Mary up at the vice-presidential level, one of four or five v.p.'s in a company of 200 people that does consulting on strategy.

Other women have sent her anonymous accounts of similar painful experiences in the vicinity of the executive suite. She has received proposals to do a book, several bids to take university fellowships and study the problem; and this week it was a movie offer.

As of Monday, her secretary was putting into an overnight Courier-Pak another bundle of 20 to 30 temptations. Mary asked if someone would scan them to see if any were companies that might be doing a favor for Bill Agee. No, no connection, came the answer. And more than one of the offers was from the golden circle of top 100 companies within the Fortune 500.

Many of her offers, Mary says represent an increase in salary. That means they approach six figures. But money is not the music Mary Cunningham hears; what she listens for are winds that will support her in leading the way toward some important social changes.

In retreat this week to rest and think and try to restore her faith in human nature, Mary has been walking the beach in California. If she had it to do over, I asked her, would she have taken the promotions at Bendix?

"You can always Monday-morning quarterback, but somebody has to trailblaze. It all the Bill Agees and Mary Cunninghams are afraid to take promotions for fear people aren't going to be ready for them, then how are we ever going to reach the point where people are rewarded with what they deserve?"

Should she have moved up so fast? I added.

"We have to ask ourselves," said the young trailblazer, "must we wait for a 29-year-old man to be made a vice president before it's okay for a woman to do it? Or can a woman be the role model and the first one to break a record?"

What she represnts is seditious. The meaning of Mary Cunningham is that the inevitable echelons of executive rank in male corporate America may not be inevitable anymore. That women, even young women, are beginning to intrude, to disrupt the network, and most insubordinate of all -- they are moving ahead on sheer merit. To be sure, they will start fires. All it takes to start the fires of sexual envy are a woman too bright and a man too progressive -- surrounded in an organization by more ordinary mortals.

Yet some have called Cunningham's an "isolated case." I asked her how isolated it was.

"That Bill Agee [chairman of Bendix and her boss] was divorced during the year and I was separated; that the company would be in a state of major change which notoriously puts people in a state of anxiety of prompts them to look for scapegoats; that I came in close to the seat of power as an executive assistant -- which automatically makes you unpopular -- and that I was promoted at 29 over people who had been there 20 or 30 years and had to explain to their egos why they weren't the ones -- that's a highly unusual convergence of events," Mary qualified her answer first.

"What is not isolated is that the male corporate world and most of the public still hold to the preconception that says the only way women could achieve the unusual is by using their sexual favors. The degree to which my case shows that prejudice still operating, I find appalling."

One test of an isolated case is whether or not it grips the public's interest. It is not by accident or simple hype that the Mary Cunningham case is becoming a household word. As Mary herself points out. "The underlying issues here are something in the air of every living room in America -- whether it be a 40-year-old house wife who's raised three kids and feels herself victimized to a degree because she hasn't lived the full life she'd hoped to, all the way to the 21-year-old professional woman who's afraid she can never get married and have children because men just won't understand her drive."

The models for Mary's statements are real. They are two of a number of women she has counseled over the past year on how to prepare, or repair, their lives. They are the other women around Bill Agee -- his newly divorced wife Diane and his daughter Sue.

Why Mary's story touches so many people is that it symbolizes a frightening new equation between men and women -- the women wanting equality and the men beginning to fear they deserve it. It is not a problem confined to male executives wrestling with how to handle meritorious women who threaten their traditional domain and dominance, but a problem being battled out in squad cars between male policemen and their new women partners, between hard-working men outraged that their wives want to go to union meetings instead of making dinner, between professional couples who can't decide on the fair course when he gets a good job offer in Singapore -- or she does -- a problem that is part of a social revolution.

The easy attack deployed to stall Mary Cunningham in mid-ascent will become less and less effective as charges of sexual favoritism are not borne out by the facts in one too many cases. Eventually, the presence of many high-performance women in high places will make ambushes on their private lives appear ridiculous, if not irrelevant. In fact, Mary's former dean and professor at Harvard Business School are thoroughly delighted it's one of theirs who is being tested.

"At a time when 25 percent of our MBA class is composed of women being graduated into middle-management level, where only 1 or 2 percent of the jobs are held by women," says senior associate dean James L. Heskett, "I'm glad it's a person with Mary's integrity and capability who is being tested."

Ten years from now, he predicts, this case will be rather "quaint." Mentors and Principles

One can survive in the system of business or politics or academia without a sponsor, but having one helps inordinately. When I did a study of top women financial executives, it emerged that a phenomenal 60 percent of them have had at least one mentor. The relationship usually began when they were in their mid 20s, ended around 30, and appeared strongly related to their success line.

Whenever there is any form of palace guard, resentment festers in the murk of anonymity just outside the corridors of power. Whether it's the older professor mentor and the young doctoral candidate who becomes his protege or the Haldeman outside the president's office or Cunningham's proximity to Agee -- all mean access and access means power. Mary's office was right next to Bill's in the corporate suite. This had a tendency to make others feel left out in the cold. It has been thus ever since the firstborn Cro-Magnon man suckled before his litter mates.

Mary Cunningham's seat next to the Bendix chairman at political conventions or the Winter Olympics -- or any of those quasi-social occasions where the real work of cementing future business deals is done with shows of status and the incurring of mutual obligations -- all this was salt in the wounds of already jealous employes. These two made a "dazzling" pair. Everyone said so.

Granted, there are questions of judgment here on how fast and how publicly it is wise to issue multiple challenges on the mythology of any institution. The woman in this case was perhaps more piously naive than most. Her mentor may have been partly under the spell of that young man's hubris which goes back to the Greek myths. But bad cases make good law. Leaving aside the exceptional personalities involved here, what are the principles in question?

Is it youth that should be denied such lofty promotions to protect some implied promise of tenure to the corporate faithful?

Why then was no fuss made when a 28-year-old moved into the treasurer's seat at Bendix last year? Coincidentally, it was a he. A financial executive who admires Cunningham's talents teased, "If she were compared to Alexander the Great, she'd be four years behind."

Is it palship that must not be permitted at the top?

It seemed quite all right for J. Edgar Hoover to have at his right hand throughout his career a much younger man with whom he was widely believed to have a close personal relationship.

Is it, then, only family nepotism that cannot be allowed (and would therefore prohibit an Agee and Cunningham to marry and still remain in their posts)?

If so, no fewer than 42 percent of the presidents under 40, men who make up the self-congratulatory membership of the Young President's Organization, must go. They all are presidents of family-owned businesses.

No? Then perhaps the higher principle of no-nepotism should be imposed only on large public companies, thereby outlawing the promotion of sons, brothers, sons-in-law, nephews, cousins, best friends' sons, stepbrothers --.

Ooops! There goes Donald Graham of Katharine Graham's Washington Post, no end of Watsons at IBM, and the kind of classical marrying-up by men that makes it okay for Steve Ross to betroth himself into the Kinney parking lot family and when his father-in-law dies, to get a divorce but keep the business and become CEO of Warner Communications.

When such arrangements, friendships or mentoring relationships are compacts between men, the worst demon evoked is jealousy. When the beneficiary of power is a woman, emotions far more primitive are tapped.

The tone with which those corporate officials who would only whisper to me their speculations on Mary's conduct and motives, after claiming anonymity for themselves, smacked of something very like charges of witchcraft. Yet, that's it, she flies into his mind in the middle of the night and "steals" his powers, like a witch.

"They had this cerebral lock and psychic attunedness," commented one overshadowed woman executive, "that was beginning to make them believe they could walk on water."

"My impression from the gossip I hear," offered an outside executive, "is that the particular relationship between Mary and Bill is unique in corporate America."

Like all mystics and geniuses, martyrs and saints, trailblazers and other exceptional people, Mary Cunningham does not fit the mold. She stretches it. Her merits cannot be dealt with head-on in fair competition. She has set a new standard. She embarrasses the others.

What's left for others to relieve the squirming maggoty suspicion that they might not be as good as they thought? Easy. They insist that no one could be that good. A New Breed

The fact is, Bill and Mary belong to a new demographic set. Agee, at 42, is a decade closer in years to Cunningham than he is away from the resigned president and vice president of Bendix, who are 52 and 58 respectively. New age ties.

Both Mary and Bill are graduates of the Harvard Business School. The man who lost the inside track to Mary never went to business school. New school ties.

Bill and his set have the advantage of belonging to the scantiest pool of executive talent around. Fertility rates when he was born, between 1935-39, were the lowest of any period until 1971.

Mary belongs to that first crack squadron of women between 20 and 30 to come out of the nation's professional schools in any numbers (900 women HBS graduates over the last decade as compared to a total of 88 in all the years before).

Having had occasion to study members of the Financial Women's Association, I know that Mary Cunningham's profile comports with that of other trailblazing young women in the business world.

Their most important long-term goals as they enter their 30s are achievement and power.

The personal qualities they value least are self-control, being helpful and being forgiving. The last two have been synonymous with the self-sacrificing behavior of traditional women who, believing themselves handicapped by their sex, often made an altruistic surrender to a man who would then perform achievements and gain power in the world for them.

Almost every one of the most successful women out of this national group said they were moderately, very, or extremely competitive. Yet most had no clear track, no set pattern for accomplishment, and few if any role models.

Mary Cunningham, by contrast, set out with a 200-page life plan to mold herself as a role model for others. There is one other striking exception in her profile. Only 5 percent of the other young women pacesetters in the financial world have a purpose or cause beyond their own advancement. Mary is driven by her moral purposes.

Where does she go from here?

Anyplace but Southfield, Mich. She is full of juice. And as a household word, she now has a guaranteed forum for the rest of her life. We haven't heard the last from Mary Cunningham.

Will she look for another mentor? I asked her.

"I think mentors are terribly important," she said with conviction, "especially for women in business. People who represent leadership need them most of all, because they threaten others and will not survive within organizations unless they are protected."

Mary Cunningham said, however, that she hopes her next mentor will be fat and dumpy and over 45. And a woman.

But there are no female CEO's in the top 100 companies. That means some other trailblazer will have to work very fast.