“Socialism, strikes and suffrage once defined International Women’s Day. But nearly a century after the first ever National Women’s Day was declared in 1909 by the Socialist Party of America, the character of protest and struggle is giving way to more eclectic gatherings.

In Canada the theme is human rights and peace; in Scotland the reception to launch IWD was hosted by a man. In Sydney, the Windsor IWD festival offers everything from family law to yoga and music classes – and, as part of a “stress-less” day at the Penrith Women’s Health Centre, there’ll be a free bellydancing workshop. Meanwhile the International Wages for Housework Campaign is pushing for a global women’s strike to mark the day.

This year Australia celebrates a century of women’s suffrage at the federal level. But three decades after the era of protest and The Female Eunuch, we aging female baby boomers are more likely to be meditating, reading health guides or taking a massage as we celebrate than burning our bras. Our daughters, having absorbed the propaganda we offered them, believe all of their goals can be achieved if they work at it. Many of them won’t even notice the day at all.

Former Senator Rosemary Crowley once recalled being astonished at an Indian man in Delhi telling her that the greatest achievement of the twentieth century was the change in the status of women. And, in spite of reports from various women’s groups that women still lag in the power stakes, women’s empowerment is happening – and at all ages. For most it’s a matter of taking control at a personal level; for others it’s a quiet and focused strategising to attain success, both at the organisational and individual levels. What men have done throughout history.

Take two of the most successful women in the public arena – Hillary Clinton and Cherie Blair. Both have managed their way through the minefield that life as a first lady can become. And each has learned how to manage that experience to her best advantage professionally.

Cherie Booth topped her Bar exams for the whole of the UK, but it was the average degree Tony Blair, who sat next to her in the alphabetised line up for a scholarship from the Inns of Court, who was chosen by top barrister Alexander Irvine after both spent a pupil year in his chambers. Cherie Booth might have held a grudge. Instead she learned quickly that there was more to success than academic brilliance.

When Tony Blair assumed the leadership of the British Labour Party, Cherie Blair found herself a PR flop. If she held her husband’s hand she looked immature; if she spoke she was lampooned as the power behind the throne.

In Linda McDougall’s recently published biography Cherie: The Perfect Life of Mrs Blair (Politicos 2001), she describes how Cherie Blair sought help from top advisers. They transformed her into the “silent Mrs Blair”. Her hair turned glossy, her lips shone and the British fashion industry dressed her. Today, as a top barrister, Cherie Booth speaks in court regularly; as Cherie Blair she appears but says very little. According to McDougall, the position of Chief Justice may be Cherie Booth’s ultimate aim.

After the agony of Hillary Clinton’s last years with husband Bill in the White House, today she is the liberated Democrat Senator for New York. Even some Republicans admire her stamina and professional spirit. After a day with her, John Harris, from the Washington Post magazine, described a woman who had learned much since her early days in the White House when she attempted health care reform. Now she recognises compromise and how to plan the stages of her ascension. She works seven day weeks and fourteen hour days.

It’s an era of pragmatism worldwide. The communal has given way to individual and self-help manuals can apply as easily to women’s status as elsewhere. Girls will find their own ways, if you please. Meanwhile, for many, solidarity has worn a little thin. Gurus and action groups have let believers down.

In Australia, parliaments can boast increasing numbers of women MPs. There’s room for many more but women have made inroads into the ranks. Senator Amanda Vanstone, once a regular target of cartoonists, now sits in the Cabinet and is a respected stayer. Senator Helen Coonan, assistant treasurer, is the first federal female MP with a Treasury portfolio. Jenny Macklin, Deputy Leader of the Labor Party, is the first Labor woman in a federal leadership position. And the recently appointed Opposition spokeswoman on immigration, Julia Gillard, the face of the younger generation of politicians – spunk and articulate confidence.

Behind these successes there are still support bases for women like Labor’s Emily’s List and the Liberal Women’s Forum. On IWD, these groups will celebrate their political action with good reason. But for many women in these pragmatic times, it will be the achievers like Hillary and Cherie and others who have made it that show the way.”

Article published in The Sydney Morning Herald