Melissa Mills is finishing her last semester at the Curtis L. Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. She is 22 years old, she wants to go into sports marketing, and after about two hours of conversation on a plane ride to New Mexico it was clear that she has a far better understanding of the world at 22 than most women of my generation had at 32.

She is the daughter of the first generation of women who turned the promises of the women's movement into reality. Her mother was a teacher. At 3, Melissa Mills was playing with GI Joes. She grew up playing football. Not long ago, she was playing on a coed team and somebody referred to her as a girl. She was at the line of scrimmage, when a defender said she would guard "this girl." Melissa yelled: "I'm not a girl." Everyone looked at her. Then she yelled: "I am a woman!" Nobody on her football team has called her a girl since.

She sees a world full of opportunities, not of limits. She's on the dean's list. Last year she helped organize a university seminar on empowering women and men in leadership. Her generation is long past the point of debating whether women should have careers. She is concerned, though, about how she will raise children. She says her boyfriend told her that if she is making more money than he is, he would assume the homemaking responsibilities. I told her he sounded like a boyfriend worth keeping.

As the plane was landing, I told her I knew some people in sports marketing who could be helpful to her. I suggested she jot her name and phone number so they could contact her. She reached into her attache' case and pulled out a re'sume' that was as professionally done as any I have ever seen. She had it with her on a social trip, not a business trip.

Another peek into the progress of the next generation of women occurred a few days later. I saw a video of a young woman I know being interviewed on Financial News Network's "American Business Today." Stephanie Epstein is the co-author of a report on piracy of American intellectual property that was done for the Congressional Economic Leadership Institute. She was discussing the theft of ideas from the computer, pharmaceutical, film, publishing and music industries by other countries. She said one estimate is that it is costing industry $61 billion a year -- nearly half of our trade deficit.

She said the problem is on the agenda for the General Agreement on Tariff and Trade negotiations for the first time. What can the United States do to protect industry? asked her interviewer. "Bilateral negotiations are probably going to have to be the major vehicle for our industries following GATT," replied Epstein. She is 25.

"As workers and as mothers, young women of the 1990s have become increasingly independent, compared to those two decades ago," according to a new study from the Institute for Women's Policy Research. "They are working more, marrying later and less, {and} assuming more family economic responsibility . . . . "

The study, based on data from the Census Bureau and other federal agencies, found that 72 percent of white women and 74 percent of black women ages 25 to 34 are in the work force today, compared with 44 percent and 58 percent in 1970. These young women are catching up with men in getting professional degrees: 50 percent of the degrees in law and veterinary medicine are going to women, as are more than 30 percent of the degrees in medicine, optometry and business management.

The advancement of women in that traditionally male field is striking: In 1970, women earned 9.1 percent of bachelor's degrees in business, 3.9 percent of the master's and 3 percent of the doctorates. By the 1986-87 school year, women earned 26.1 percent of the bachelor's, 34 percent of the master's and 22.1 percent of the doctorates. Similar leaps took place in architecture, agriculture and engineering. The number of lawyers and judges among women 25 to 34 years old more than doubled between 1983 and 1989.

The bad news is that the gap between the wages of men and women continues to plague young women and it gets worse as men and women age and men's earnings continue to outstrip those of women. That's a battle that will unify these young women and their mothers -- and perhaps their fathers. But the good news is that young women such as Melissa Mills and Stephanie Epstein are starting out far ahead of where their mothers were in terms of their educational credentials, ambitions, opportunities and, most important of all, their sense of empowerment. Mills said it was her mother's generation that made it possible for her generation to do what it is doing.

And that was nice to hear.