Around the World, Women Are on the Move

April 9, 2009 at 6:50 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, speaking of women, essayist Richard Rodriguez considers women on the move all over the world.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, former secretary of State: I, Madeleine Korbel Albright…

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ, NewsHour essayist: In 1996, President Bill Clinton appointed Madeleine Albright as secretary of state. Because of Madeleine Albright, because of Condoleezza Rice who came soon after, because of Hillary Clinton, we scarcely mark the gender revolution that has taken place in just over a decade.

HILLARY CLINTON, secretary of State: So help me God.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Today, the diplomatic face of America is a woman’s face. All over the world, women and girls are on the move.

In Pakistani and Afghan villages, girls make their way to school, sometimes furtively, wary of boys or men who might splash them with acid for daring to learn to read and to write.

In the last half-century, hundreds of thousands of Mexican women have left their villages to find jobs in America or to work in Mexican border town assembly plants.

In Juarez, hundreds of women who ventured into the world alone have been murdered. The world remains a dangerous place for women.

Even so, at U.S. colleges, female students are signing up for study-abroad programs by a 2-to-1 ratio over males. Indeed, female students, many the daughters and granddaughters of women who did not assume college in their lives, now outnumber male students on American campuses.

In American legend, as in so many of the world’s myths, it is the young man who leaves home to find gold or slay the dragon. Lewis and Clark are paradigmatic American explorers, blazing a trail from St. Louis to the Pacific Coast. But as it happened, they were led up the Missouri River and across the Rockies by a Shoshone Indian. Her name was Sacagawea.

In the Americas, there were other stories like hers, native women who became go-betweens, translators, even lovers of the foreign.

In colonial Virginia, Pocahontas left her tribe to marry an Englishman, and she traveled with him to London to become a figure in history.

In Mexico, male history still reviled Marina, La Malinche, as a sexual traitor. She was an Indian woman who became the lover of the Spaniard Cortez. Marina conspired with Cortez against the Aztecs who had imprisoned her own tribe.

The mothers of leaders

What are we to make of these stories of women moving among cultures and conflict? Today we have the story of Kansas-born Ann Dunham, an anthropologist, whose son is now president of the United States. In interviews, Barack Obama describes his mother as searching but also reckless.

Her life was a series of journeys. In Hawaii, white Anne Dunham married a black Kenyan. When the marriage failed, he returned to Africa, which for him was the known world. She ventured outward to Muslim Indonesia.

In American homes when marriages fail, it is usually the husband who disappears. Women become the head of the family, responsible for instilling in sons as well as daughters the meaning of adulthood.

Professional athletes, movie stars, convicts, presidents all testify to the importance of single mothers. At last summer's Olympics, the world saw Michael Phelps emerge from the pool after each event to search the crowd for his mother.

The news this evening is of failing male oligarchies on Wall Street. The news this evening is of tribal chieftains at war with modernity. The news is of religious leaders who forbid the ordination of women, even as they stumble from one diplomatic gaffe to another.

Throughout history, the world has been largely governed by men. When the male order falters and fails -- as it seems now -- we would make a mistake if we assumed the world was collapsing. All over the world, millions of women are valiantly venturing far from custom, little girls are walking across the desert to school.

I'm Richard Rodriguez.