Better half: Unconventional women in America and Asia

Women can be looked at in different ways. Photo editors of Playboy Magazine look at them mainly in a two-dimensional, commercial way. The late, great master Benjamin DeMott, of Amherst College, used to quip that the editors of the magazine tended to reduce the "whole man" to the "sum of his private parts."

By Tom Plate (Pacific Perspectives)

Published: Sat 30 Aug 2008, 10:08 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 11:11 AM

There are other — non-reductionist — ways of looking at modern women, of course. One is to view them as Warrior Queens. These are women who 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 become less un-level by the decade. The current Democratic National Convention, while set to nominate 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.

The two most obvious examples are Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama. 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. It's second to none in the US. Mrs. Obama is no slouch either, to say the least. First it was Princeton, for an honours degree in Sociology and African Studies, and then off to another pretty good law school — Harvard.

But there's a third Woman Warrior at Denver who's actually got more degrees than either of the above. Jill Biden, the wife of the senator from Delaware who's slated to be the Vice-Presidential nominee, has a Ph. D 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 latter should equip her to handle Washington's many weirdoes should her husband wind up in the White House!)

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/Myanmar on orders from the evil 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 US and 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 formally institutional 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 favourite contemporary women who are very 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, as she prefers to be called, taught English and English literature. Nuot only is her French and Vietnamese better than mine (which are basically non-existent), her English is at least as good.

Just one more for now: In Washington for about the last ten 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 merely born with family wealth to ride on; and others came up the hard-scrabble way and scholarship-ed their way through the fanciest educational dives on earth.

However they made it, we guys have to tip our hats to them. It's not easy being a woman in a man's world, no matter how privileged or lucky. To make it takes hard work and steely commitment. 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. Barack Obama may or may not become the 44th President of the United States, but whatever happens, it's safe to assume we haven't heard the last of his wife Michelle. All of the above is good — very good.

Prof. Tom Plate is a veteran American journalist and founder of the Asia Pacific Media Network

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