We appear to be nearing the tipping point in a decades-long cultural transformation in this country. I was reminded of this after reading the recent New York Times bestseller, "The Girls of Atomic City," which documented the earliest years of my hometown, Oak Ridge, Tenn.
In the book, active participation of women in the birth of the nuclear age is well-described -- from the little acknowledged research of female scientists to the almost unknown work of many just graduated high school girls, who, by their diligent and unequaled powers of observation, unknowingly were able to assure that there was enough enriched uranium for the Hiroshima bomb.
Not surprisingly, the end of World War II was followed by the resumption of previous societal roles. In fact, even 25 years later, when I started medical school, women comprised less than 10 percent of my class. I vividly remember the story of a young surgery faculty member who competed successfully in a local road race and the newspaper article the following day stated, "the female winner of the eight mile Bay to Breakers race was Fran Conley, Palo Alto, housewife and part-time brain surgeon." Ironically, Dr. Conley ultimately became the first woman granted a tenured professorship of neurosurgery.
Now, nearly 50 percent of medical students are women and even in the formerly male-dominated field of surgery, the number of females continues to grow. In fact, in the surgery program here at WVU-Charleston almost 40 percent of the trainees are women. At the risk of gender profiling, it's my opinion that this bodes well for 21st century medicine, as communication skills and the ability to work collaboratively as part of a team -- traits many experts more commonly ascribe to females -- are becoming increasingly important in health care.
Clearly, the emerging status of women in American society remains a topic of lively discussion -- just consider the examples of equal pay, domestic violence, the military, access to child care, Title IX, and opportunities in science and technology.
Adding to the dialogue is a recent essay by the iconic Warren Buffett. In it, the Berkshire Hathaway CEO claims to be an unqualified optimist about our future and then argues that women are a major reason we will do so well. He notes that our country's secret over its long history has been a political and economic system that "unleashes human potential to an extraordinary degree."
Yet, "America has forged this success while utilizing, in large part, only half of the country's talent."
Things have changed since former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor had no option after graduating from law school other than to be a legal secretary, and since West Virginia native Nancy Nielsen, the second woman to be elected AMA President, worked as an administrative assistant to provide for her five children before she was able to go to medical school.
Although the numbers of women in medicine, law, engineering, politics and business have dramatically increased, unfortunately, when considering positions of leadership, the so-called glass ceiling is disappearing far too slowly. This realization likely reflects the thrust of Buffett's comments.
I have no sisters, daughters, or granddaughters, but I am well aware of the intellect, skills, and work ethic of my wife and late mother. Although both demonstrated incredible productivity, it's easy to imagine the multitude of other contributions they could have made, if given the same opportunities and encouragement I received. As this anticipated evolution unfolds, let us not forget how the work of those young Tennessee women from a different time affected the remarkable impact of the Manhattan Project and then contemplate what it could mean when America fully taps the abilities of all its citizens. Are we ready for a "Madame President"?
Foster is a Charleston surgeon and a former state senator.