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To be a woman in the 21st century is to live with layers of contradictions. You can be anything you want, until you want to be a mother. You can do anything you want, but make sure you look terrific doing it.

In this country, we have a woman who heads our Supreme Court, but we also have little girls anachronistically trapped in a pink princess culture. (Where is Supreme Court Barbie when we need her?)

We have young women flooding into medical schools, yet men far outstrip women in senior positions in teaching hospitals. Wait, are these bright young female achievers who make up more than half the university population and are storming the professions with their talent and drive, the same oversexualized teens we were worried about in a Girls Gone Wild culture?

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Then there are the multitudes of female lawyers with children who just can't make a brutal billing system work for them.

We have soap ads that tell women who are lawyers, police chiefs and surgeons to not worry about their looks and just be themselves because that is enough, while onscreen, the women who play lawyers, police chiefs and surgeons are all eternal hotties. American author Susan Douglas pegged these contradictions as "enlightened sexism," but our daughters just know it as life.

We have women everywhere in business and yet in Canada they still make up only 11 per cent of corporate boards. Not much progress there.

As author Naomi Wolf said in a recently aired CBC-TV documentary The F-Word: Who Wants to Be a Feminist?, directed by Michael McNamara and co-written with Judy Holm, in order to change the system, women have to "put their hands on the three levers of power": money, electoral power and the media. So far, most female hands are still reaching.

Yet the lives our daughters lead are opportunity-rich compared with the lives our grandmothers and mothers lived. You can't be a middle-aged woman today and not marvel at how much has changed, from the serious treatment of domestic abuse and sexual harassment (in our mothers' time, as Gloria Steinem once said, these were considered "just life") to the take-for-granted attitude young girls have toward achieving in all walks of professional life.

But the deluge of media attention over the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day did have its unsettling moments.

In the Western world, most of it was congratulatory - look how far we've come, baby - and the rest of it focused as it should, on women in developing countries where women's rights are human rights, and where, as authors Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn say in their book Half the Sky "the paramount moral challenge" in this century will be "the struggle for gender equality around the world."

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But here, some privileged women and men decreed that the fight for equality and against sexism has been won and therefore we western women should all just shut up and stop our whining. (Imagine saying that to people of colour about racism.)

Now, we are told, it's all just a matter of human nature and choice, or as conservative critiquer of feminism Christina Hoff Sommers put it bluntly in that CBC documentary "you're not going to be able to win a Nobel prize on flex time. It's just not going to happen." (But maybe if you had a partner who worked as hard as you did at home as well as at work, you'd have a shot at that prize.)

The personal has always been the political in the search for gender equality, with the danger that Western women who focus relentlessly on what they still don't have in their relatively comfortable lives could be slammed, as one feminist writer once put it, as "the solipsisters." (Hard to imagine, but Senator and former broadcaster Larry Zolf once called feminist trailblazer Germaine Greer "neurotic" to her face during a TV interview.)

I am grateful for, and proud of all that we've accomplished. But I also think of what I would advise my daughter to do to safeguard her rights - keep an eye on any politicians who want to curtail your reproductive rights (attacks against Planned Parenthood, incursions into the availability of abortion) because that is a cornerstone of your freedom. Don't be afraid to tell employers what you're worth (a recent study shows that male university graduates negotiate the terms of their first jobs while women don't).Choose a life partner who is willing to not only fully share the responsibility for raising a family but also help you achieve your professional goals. Fight against your inner voice that equates your self worth with how you measure up in the sexual marketplace.

And please don't shut up, whatever you do, about injustices or absurdities, big or small. Point out what's wrong with fashion magazines that are now using 15-year-old emaciated models to tell you how to dress. Speak up when you think you're not being treated equally. Inform yourself about the lives of women and girls in other countries and figure out how to help the global struggle.

Well-behaved women - women who don't whine - are not the ones who make history or policy. They're not the ones who got us this far. Take nothing for granted. Equality is never a done deal. There is always more to be accomplished.

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