We heard them talking. It couldn't be helped. The tables at this urban lunching spot were separated by millimeters. So we caught the conservation as it drifted over from the two young women at the table next to us.
The women had ventured in from the world of finance. Dressed in pin stripes, they talked for two solid hours about corporate mergers, interest rates, the ins and outs of the international monetary system.
When lunch was over, each flashed an American Express card, picked up a briefcase and went off.
Only then did my friend turn with a smile and ask, "Is this what we were fighting for? The right of women to be equally boring?"
I suppose it wasn't fair to laugh. It wasn't even fair to define banking as dull or to color these women in gray. But that afternoon they seemed a part of some syndrome.
Not that long ago, banking was still a male noun. Manager was a masculine term. Even lawyer was a "he-word." Now women can also be bankers, managers, lawyers. But they are more likely to win the job than change the job definition. Indeed, they often learned to fit it.
These two women reminded me of all the others I had seen lately who were fading into some corporate wallpaper. The young broker who treated her secretary like a personal shopper. The young manager who defended the most repressive personnel policies of her company. The young doctor who now defended the rigid residency system.
It was all a bit the last lines of George Orwell's "Animal Farm." After the revolution, the animals looked from pig to human, from human to pig, and could see hardly any difference.
Was I being too hard? Probably.
But I thought about it again, the next week, at Wellesley College commencement. The life plan of the graduating seniors of this plush women's school had changed and changed again. The graduate of 30 years ago became a wife and mother. The graduate of 10 years ago went into teaching and social work. But the young women who filed up for their diplomas on that rainy Friday were geared for professional schools and for the business world.
These members of the female intellectual elite are welcomed, even wooed, into what we used to call "non-traditional jobs." They, and their peers on other campuses, are heading into the male world.
And it is still a male world.
They will be welcome if they play the male game, if they accept the operating rules, if they fit the old definitions. As full-fledged members of the female elite, they may even be proudly treated just like men.
That is the success and the failure.
For all the struggle, it seems we have had more luck at getting treated just like men than in changing the way the society treats both men and women.
Twenty years ago, for example, the college graduate would have been routinely stigmatized by her sex, quizzed endlessly about her "family" plans.
If she was single, employers said she would just marry. If she was already married, they said she would just have children. If she already had children, they said her children would get sick. And if her children were grown, they ; said she was too old.
Now it is virtually illegal to ask a woman about her family. Here, too, we have succeeded in having women and men treated alike, as if neither of us had families.
I am not downgrading the changes that were made. They were essential, and hard to come by. But they are incomplete. So far progress has been lopsided. The young women, the "best and the brightest," can make it in a man's world. They can adopt the values, the protective coloration, the credit cards and lingo of the system. They can even become part of the problem.
Is this the equal right we fought for? my friend asked at lunch. Yes, in part. But these same women can opt to change that world. And that is the equal right we hoped for.