Excuse me, but what's so odd about a woman going to work?

It may be that all over this country little girls still dream of one day marrying a prince
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IT TELLS you a lot about the state of our occasionally United Kingdom when a woman going to work becomes a big news story. A very, very big news story. It was, of course, not just any woman. It was the former Sophie Rhys-Jones, now the Countess of Wessex, and after her pleasant Scottish honeymoon with Prince Edward she returned to her career as a successful public relations executive this week.

On the doorstep, as her bodyguard fumbled with the office keys, the Countess was surrounded by a contingent of journalists. Thanks to years of PR experience she maintained a radiantly royal demeanour as she answered the burning questions of the day. These included that most significant inquiry, "Sophie, how is the marriage going?"

It is difficult to overstate how perverse this moment seemed. Imagine calling up someone you know intimately - your best friend, your brother or sister, your mum or dad - and asking the same thing. "So, John, how's the marriage going?" Or, "Mum, how is your marriage to Dad? OK, is it?" If that is borderline insane, now imagine asking the same question of a complete stranger.

If you went around the country asking people you had never met about the state of their marriages, you would be arrested - or detained under the Mental Health Act. But if you happen to be a journalist and ask for a marital status report from a member of the Royal Family, instead of being locked up you get your story into the newspapers.

Rather like the front-page photograph of the Queen - another working woman - having a cup of tea in a working-class Glasgow housing estate, royalty accomplishing even the mundane somehow becomes news. Of course, there are those on the republican left who regard the Royal Family as parasites, in which case the revelation that the latest addition to the royals actually does an honest day's work for an honest day's pay may indeed be a big news story. As for the vast majority of Britons, well, some of us remain puzzled that at the end of the 20th century this kind of stuff makes the papers or gets on the telly, especially when it is replete with suggestions that there is something dash-it-all modern about a married woman occasionally going to the office.

But Sophie's tale obscures the fact that there really are many more significant stories about the problems faced by women at work. A painkiller manufacturer, Solpadeine, carried out a survey of 1,500 British women and discovered that nearly two out of three, 60 per cent, regularly get headaches because of stress at work. One in six has burst into tears in front of her boss, and more than half of the women surveyed had worked through the night to meet a deadline. One woman in five even said that commuting to work was especially stressful thanks to the body odour of fellow passengers.

A separate, Government-backed study found that almost one worker in four suffered extreme stress in the office, with symptoms ranging from headaches and sleeplessness to excessive drinking.

Then there was the landmark court case of Beverley Lancaster, who fought her former employers at Birmingham City Council for six years over work- related stress. They moved her from a back-room job as a senior draughtswoman to dealing with tenants as a housing officer in Sutton Coldfield. By her own admission she became a nervous wreck. Ms Lancaster made legal history, and was awarded pounds 67,000 in compensation.

After the hearing, in comments that will have been cheered by millions of British workers who understand exactly what she is talking about, Ms Lancaster said, "My employers should have listened to me, but I was treated like a number not a human being."

Yet the most significant woman-at-work story of recent months and of many months to come is that of Hillary Rodham Clinton, a woman who is a role model for coping with stress. Mrs Clinton, as everyone knows, is positioning herself to go to work as Democratic Senator for New York state, the first wife of a serving President openly to run for office.

The Republicans are determined to paint Hillary, the girl from Illinois, working wife and mother from Arkansas, and First Lady from Washington DC, as an outsider to New York, a carpetbagger. The suggestion is that winning the Senate seat in 2000 is merely a convenient stepping-stone to what Hillary really wants - a full presidential bid in 2004 or 2008. Well, maybe. But even with all that against her, there is something about Mrs Clinton's decision to work for high office which all but confirmed Clinton haters find admirable.

One of the reasons why Hillary is so adored by so many people, especially younger women, is that she has become an emblem of familiar problems. This goes way beyond what she once described as standing by her man like some little woman in the Tammy Wynette song.

It is the sense that Hillary, a woman at least as talented as Bill, put her career as a lawyer on hold to act as political wife and mother while carrying out an impossible balancing act between traditional and modern women's roles. Mrs Clinton has frequently alluded to this, referring to herself as a "transitional" figure. She straddles what women were once expected to be, what they now are, and what they may become. As she acidly put it in the 1992 election campaign, she could indeed have stayed home and had teas and baked cookies.

But the real fascination of Hillary Clinton is that she manages to be loved and loathed across America precisely because she is a symbol of this transition, and of the deepest social divisions of the past generation. As the commentator Michael Barone once remarked, Hillary and her husband represent a generation that did not fight in military uniform as their fathers had done, and did not stay at home and look after the children as their mothers had done.

Underneath the cool exterior that once earned her the nickname of Sister Frigidaire, Hillary may be one of the 60 per cent of women who regularly get headaches from stress at work, but you would never know. Hillary does not look like a woman who gets headaches. She looks like a woman who gives them. Now, with her daughter at university and her husband coming to the end of his presidency, Hillary Clinton is doing one of the most difficult things possible for any woman, relaunching a new career in mid-life. The catch is that, unlike those following the Countess, in this case journalists asking the question "how is the marriage going?" may in fact be on the right track.

Now, of course, I may be completely wrong about British popular taste when it comes to interest in Sophie going to work as opposed to Hillary going to work. It may be that we have become infantilised by years of royal trivia, our British diet of cultural junk food. And it may be that all over this country little girls still go to bed dreaming of one day marrying a prince, and never dreaming that they might run for high political office instead. But when I look at my own daughter I suspect that Britain has changed, and that little girls really dream of what they may do rather than who they may be.

The writer is a presenter on BBC News24