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How do you take the measure of a woman's life at 50, when her generation--or at least its passionate front line--has broken all the rules? "There is no formula that I'm aware of for being a successful or fulfilled woman today," Hillary Rodham Clinton once said. "Perhaps it would be easier...if we could be handed a pattern and cut it out, just as our mothers and grandmothers and foremothers were. But that is not the way it is today, and I'm glad it is not."

On Oct. 26, Hillary turns 50, which is a birthday that compels almost any woman to step back and examine whether the drape and line of her life fit the woman she once dreamed of becoming. The cutting edge of female Baby Boomers, of whom Hillary is the most famous, approached adulthood with a wild, subversive earnestness. These women would change the world, have careers, build strong marriages, raise good children and keep their sense of humor. Hillary has been a beneficiary of these expectations, and as First Lady also their most conspicuous victim. Her Wellesley education and Yale law degree put her onstage (as the student speaker at her college commencement and later as one of the nation's "most influential" lawyers), but they also moved her to the side when her husband's Arkansas constituency chafed at her insistence on being called Ms. Rodham. They put her in a new kind of spotlight as the victorious spouse of this nation's first Baby Boomer President, but she stepped off the stage again when her mishandling of health-care reform almost crippled his presidency.

Now she is getting ready to come onstage again, into some treacherous politics. For the first time since her health-care debacle, the First Lady is preparing to assume a leading role on a policy issue that sweeps every corner of American life, opening questions of government's role, corporate responsibilities and even the very nature of family. As Hillary wrote in her best-selling book It Takes a Village, "If you want to open the floodgates of guilt and dissension anywhere in America, start talking about child care."

To begin her moderation of the issue, the First Lady will lead a major White House conference on child care next week; she promises to lay out the problem's complexities with her customary intellectual rigor. "You have to put the issue in front of the American people and get them to look at it honestly," she told TIME last week in a late-night interview at her hotel suite in Panama City, Panama, where she spoke at a conference of First Ladies of the Americas. But already the ideological lines on child care are forming, bracing for confrontation. "It's very clear," says Hillary's old ally, children's advocate Marian Wright Edelman, "that child care is going to have a private-sector piece, a state piece, a community piece and a Federal Government piece." In other words, retorts conservative guru Paul Weyrich, child care is going to be "the new entitlement of the next century."

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