I Needed A Sealtbelt For Maria Shriver's Women's Conference

On October 26th and 27th (Hilary Clinton’s Birthday) Maria Shriver’s Sixth Annual Women’s Conference (which sold out in a record-breaking two days!) took place at The Long Beach Convention Center.  In a nutshell – and according to their website – http://www.californiawomen.org/the-womens-conference-2009/ “The mission of The Women’s Conference is to inspire, empower and educate women to be Architects of Change in their own lives and in the lives of others.”

The theme this year: Be Who YOU Are – An Architect of Change And Pass It On.

The conference coincides with A Woman’s Nation (http://awomansnation.com/) and The Shriver Report, A Study By Maria Shriver And The Center For American Progress that addresses the new fact that half of American workers are now female.

I could not attend so I sat in my home office from 8AM until 3PM absolutely glued to their website which streamed a live webcast of the day’s events.  It was also streaming live on The White House website!  Yay!!!!!!!

If I had been there, I would have needed a seat belt.

I was, and am, completely and utterly, inspired, motivated, empowered and as Eve Ensler – one of the speaker/performer’s proclaimed “I LOVE LOVE LOVE BEING A GIRL!”

Here are some highlights:

The conference began in a big beautiful ballroom type of setting with attendees sitting at tables. It looked and sounded just like The Academy Awards, dramatic and exciting. The lights dimmed and a woman’s voice boomed out “Ladies and Gentleman! Live!  From Long Beach California! Welcome to the Women’s Conference 2009!”

Young, beautiful and talented Los Angeles Opera Singer Angel Blue (yes that is her name)  was introduced to sing Frances Scott Key’s The Star Spangled Banner. As she sang I couldn’t help think of Julia Ward Howe’s Battle Hymn Of The Republic – you know it…”mine eyes have seen the glory….”.  Both are Civil War songs and I was reminded again of how little we are taught and know about our women’s history.  I am determined to change that.  Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910), trailblazing mom, was the very first woman elected in 1908 to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970.

Broadcast newswoman and journalist Paula Zahn was the day’s MC.  She looks and sounds JUST LIKE Jane Fonda did years ago!  Freaky. She set the tone talking about how we all want to live more meaningful lives, yet we are trying to live up to our self-imposed unrealistic expectations and how we are exhausted and overwhelmed and need to come together, to be part of a community.  Then came the stats; seventy five percent of all women – and men – are feeling stressed out.  No kidding.  Half of all workers in America are females and two thirds are moms that are either the primary or co-breadwinners in their homes.  This is the big news.  “We are responsible for so much. Yet”, she goes on to say, “women are still afraid to ask their employers for time off to care for their children or their parents.”  No mention of the seventy eight cents to the man’s dollar that women earn or the very real maternal profiling that prevents women from either getting hired or rocking the boat once employed. But these were just the opening remarks and I am happy to report that minimum wage worker’s issues were addressed later in an amazing panel that included Madeline Albright, Claire Shipman, Amy Holmes and Valerie Jarrett hosted by David Gregory.  More on that panel later.  Zahn spoke of her own life – juggling motherhood with career and the guilt she – and so many women feel always.  “Guilt is corrosive and unproductive”. Yes. Zahn now has two shows on the Discovery Channel – and after thirty years, she is her own boss and finally she controls her life.”   Zahn asked us to take an inventory of our lives, to be kind to ourselves, to ask for help, and not be martyrs.  The key phrase was  “Live It, Feel It, Pass It On”.  There was definitely a pep rally feel and I loved it!

Next up - Laree Renda, Executive VP of Safeway Inc. who introduced Geena Davis.  Remember she played a president on television?  Well, she spoke about her organization called SeeJane.org  http://www.thegeenadavisinstitute.org/  which is all about gender in media and advancing leadership for women and girls. She talked about how underrepresented we are in Government – only two women out of nine on the Supreme Court- – women are only 20% of congress so I of course immediately thought – again – what a great opportunity to bring up some original architects of change - the female trailblazers in government – Victoria Woodhull – first woman to run for president, Elizabeth Cady Stanton who nominated herself to Congress – the first female nomination (she only got twenty-four votes), Jeanette Rankin - the first gal elected to The House of Representatives – Margaret Chase Smith – first female in the House and the Senate – oh don’t get me started  - but I digress.  Geena Davis had plenty to talk about – specifically  – her study on G rated media targeting girls eleven years of age and under.  Her findings:  kids media is the WORST  - three males for every female character and girls are portrayed as peripheral, undervalued, hyper sexualized.  I loved her presentation – factual and sobering and gently and effectively told using comedy when there is NOTHING funny about this subject.

Robin Roberts, Co-Anchor of Good Morning America hosted the next panel entitled Tough Leadership Decisions in Tough Times.  The panel consisted of Sheila C. Bair who was introduced as the ChairMAN of the FDIC.  Made me laugh of course – ChairMAN – and SIR Richard Branson – of The Virgin Group and The Terminator himself Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (whose wife for the un-informed is Maria Shriver).  First question posed to the group – to whom do you turn for advice?  Arnold said Maria and got a big laugh. Branson discussed his new book “Screw It Just Do It” and advised not to take no for an answer.  Bair talked about courage and how she took a foreclosure workshop and worked on the mortgage restructuring and foreclosure crisis in California. The Governor then talked about California economics and taxes and gave his wife Maria some really beautiful props talking about how she changed his way of thinking – praising her determination and calling her “The Determinator”.  More laughs.  Branson told a story about giving a speech in Saudi Arabia – I loved this – to ten thousand men, and right before he was to deliver the speech, he was told that the women were back in the corner behind a screen – as is the custom. So Branson is introduced and comes out and says “I believe when in Rome…. but here you men have taken all the best seats and put the women in the corner”.  He said the men were “deathly silent” but he could hear and see the women screaming from behind the curtain and throwing things in the air.  I loved that story.  Then he spoke about a law in Norway mandating that fifty percent of company board members are required now by law to be women.  This inspired a whole discussion and Sheila Bair’s comment “I am conflicted - I want women to earn it and not be given the jobs and I think fifty percent is a low estimate” resulted in major applause and a conversation ensued about quotas and mandates.

Branson said men running companies (and most companies are run by men) need to change their mindset to incorporate more flex time and flex hours.

Arnold discussed diversification in the workplace and bragged about the many women on his staff in positions of leadership and power - not because they are women but because they were the right person for the job and I think that’s great but the reality was not addressed. Momsrising.org has all the sad statistics about maternal profiling – I wanted to hear that phrase maternal profiling and I did not.

Roberts asked them – as philanthropists, successful business people and entrepreneurs  -  for practical advice for us, about how to be successful.  Sheila Bair talked about being yourself and using your gifts.   Branson’s advice: “if you’re running a company – make it fun – have a laugh”.  Arnold said “Be willing to fail” and brought up a bunch of his movies that bombed – like Jingle All The Way -  and got a lot of laughs but then I was pleased to hear him give specific practical advice which he did discussing how  Green Technology is booming in California and there is money to made there.  He also talked about being courageous.  Branson told another story about giving seed money to a woman in a third world country – can’t remember which one – and how he loaned her $300 for a sewing machine to start a business.   She succeeded and paid him back and hired other women.  It was a very inspirational story.

The issues of self-worth and self-esteem came up next with the awesome Cheryl Saban who is the author and founder of The Women’s Self-Worth Foundation Cheryl Saban, Author and Founder, The Women’s Self Worth Foundation  who came on to speak and introduce Eve Ensler.  I loved how she spoke about our cultural mores and how they shape us.  Again, it brought to my mind Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  She spoke and wrote about the same issues over a hundred and fifty years ago and I wish SOMEONE would bring up her groundbreaking The Women’s Bible, in which Stanton accuses religion of keeping women down and describes the Bible as an historical rather than sacred document.  Talk about courage....

And then came Even Ensler, playwright (The Vagina Monologues), and V-Day Founder  Eve Ensler, Playwright, Performer, V-Day Founder  who BLEW THE ROOM AWAY!!!!! “These are dangerous times…” she said and went on:  “We are on the precipice, we need to feed the earth, liberate girls and women”.  She has spent the last twelve years covering the planet and has seen it all.  She talked about pleasing – how we like to please – “the act of pleasing makes everything murky – OK -  rather than real”.   The audience really responded to that.  “Here are some new verbs” she said;  “provoke, question, challenge, dare, engage” and I of course immediately think about my gals – Woodhull, Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, Frances Wright (trailblazing reformer and first woman in America to speak in public that no one ever heard of), Eleanor Roosevelt – all called the most dangerous women in America.  They all did provoke, question, challenge, dare, engage and suffered so much - public abuse – familial rejection – all of it.  These courageous trailblazing women  lived exactly the way Eve Ensler was describing.  She has a new book called I Am An Emotional Creature, The Secret Life Of Girls Around The World and went on to say how she had witnessed terrible realities – rape, mutilation, date rapes – and once again came the statistics; one out of three of our American female soldiers are raped – staggering statistics.  She then told an amazing story of a fourteen year old Kenyan girl who knew her sister was mutilated (female circumcision), and knew she would be next and overheard her father discussing with her future husband how she was going to be sold for a cow.  So she ran away.  She walked for two days to a safe house that Eve Ensler’s organization had established and Eve Ensler went with this girl back to her home for a reconciliation and witnessed how, as she said “this fourteen year old girl walked in to that house and was ‘so fierce’ and got her father to change and her family cried and the father promised he would not cut her or her sisters.  Talk about empowerment…..

Ensler’s message; take charge, be braver, be bolder, stand up, resist, along with the message to honor yourself, your femaleness.  She had all these fabulous lines like “terrorists are made, not born” and “one kiss can change your decision making process”…and “you don’t tell the Atlantic Ocean how to behave”.

Then she performed.   A new piece.   From her book I Am An Emotional Creature, The Secret Life Of Girls Around The World.   She stepped out from behind the podium and the light changed – it was theatrical which I love - and the audience just ate her up.  She ended by proclaiming -  at the top of her voice – so so so passionate “I LOVE LOVE LOVE BEING A GIRL!!!  She absolutely brought the house down!!!!!

A very emotional and heartbreaking speaker came on next. SOMALY MAM Somaly Mam, Founder, AFESIP, President, The Somaly Mam Foundation  a survivor of Cambodian brothels. 
Her life’s work is helping victims – teenage girls who have been forced into prostitution.  Married with three children, her story was heartbreaking, saying in her halting broken English, “I need mother...no one loved me.”  What a brave and beautiful woman who left with the message “don’t be scared to help the people”.

Katie Couric interviewed Annie Liebowitz  - Annie Leibovitz, Photographer the famed Vanity Fair photojournalist, known for her celebrity photographs.   Katie looked great in a red dress and red heels. They are friends as Annie had photographed Katie years ago.  So the first thing Katie addressed was Liebowitz’s financial woes.  She is being sued for hundreds of thousands of dollars and as Vanity Fair’s editor Graydon Carter said  “The mind that can take these extraordinary pictures is not necessarily the same mind that is a perfect money manager.”  Liebowitz could not discuss any specifics due to an ongoing legal battle but I loved this because she answered that she, like many women, did not pay attention to her finances. She just focused on her work and as she put it “left it in other’s hands”.   How many of us can relate?  It was a fabulous interview. Liebowitz, who is the mother of three, is very entertaining, very interesting and is a great storyteller – very human, very personal.   Her photos were put up on a big screen and she discussed them.  There were many of celebrities and many of death from her controversial book “A Photographer’s Life” – including photos of her father (whose death she said was ‘a good death as he died at home, in his bed’ but I had to look way – it was too painful for me. Her dad would have been horrified, she said  if he were alive to know of her current financial situation as he was always worried about her.   She also had photographed her partner, author and activist Susan Sontag.  She was very honest discussing her photos.  There were photos (and stories)  of Queen Elizabeth, and politicians;  Jimmy Carter, Clinton, Gore, Ann Richards, Barbara Jordan, Madeline Albright (who was on a later panel), Sandra Day O’Connor – the first woman elected to the Supreme Court and Ruth Ginsberg – the second woman elected to The Supreme Court and Katie mentioned Sotomayor who Liebowitz had not photographed – yet.  Beautiful photos of the Kennedy’s and Hillary of course, and Colin Powell and The Obamas. Katie tried to get her to gossip but she wouldn’t, saying ”I still have years ahead of me to work”.  The last photo we saw was of Maria and Arnold.

The next panel was fantastic!   How A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything hosted by Meet The Press Moderator David Gregory.  Loved the panel which consisted of the First Female Secretary of State Madeline Albright, (mother and grandmother), single mom Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s Senior Advisor, Claire Shipman, ABC’s Senior Correspondent Good Morning America and co-author of Womenomics and Amy Holmes, conservative political analyst  and the only unmarried non-mother panelist.

An unbelievable clip was shown from a 1972 Meet the Press with moderator Lawrence Spivak asking Gloria Steinem the most ridiculous questions about women’s roles in response to her statement about women not being taken seriously, being undervalued, ridiculed, ignored by society, etcetera.  So Spivak makes the statement that white men are virtually controlled by women from birth through puberty and beyond that.  “Why hadn’t you done a better job, if you’re as smart as you say you are “?  So now you can hear the audience of the conference laughing in disbelief in the background watching this clip and Steinem responds by saying “well that is your statement, not mine that women are virtually controlled by men” and goes on spelling out for the poor guy how “she has no real power over her life outside of her home, no power over the politics or economics of her life so I wouldn’t accept the premise of that statement”.  Then Spivak asks her   “Can’t she brainwash the male?  Why doesn’t she do it?” More laughter in the background and again Steinem explains to the poor guy how it’s not about brainwashing but changing – “eliminating the sex and race stereotypes of how women are taught and trained to invest their hopes and dreams in their male children and how their female children are not expected to meet those expectations and so on”.   She was and always is so articulate and intelligent and poised.  I love her so much. Don’t we all?

After the clip, Gregory asks Albright what has changed and would that question be asked today and she says “well I think it has finally been recognized that more than half the population is made up of women” and goes on commenting about the status of women and how women should be politically and economically empowered”.  These were Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s exact sentiments at the very first Women’s Conference at Seneca Falls in 1848!!!   Albright then went on to say “And if that question were to be asked today I think the answer would begin with the letter F.”  Lotsa laughter and applause then.  Albright was brilliant, citing her own trailblazing journey as a journalist, always taking a backseat to her husband and later brought up how much she was criticized – by OTHER MOTHERS for being ambitious and opened up the whole ridiculous mommy wars issue.  I loved it when she said “there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other”.  Major applause there too. She spoke about how when she graduated Wellesley in 1959, they were told it was their responsibility to raise smart children (not to pursue a career or use their education).  She went on discussing how business needs to offer daycare etcetera – and hey!  My gals ALL said the same thing – Stanton, Frances Wright – Victoria Woodhull – gosh we are still talking about the same issues!!!   It was a terrific panel addressing infrastructure and support systems and of course balancing motherhood with career, which is what I think a lot of the conference was about.  I loved how Shipman said she sees a “feminization of values”.  The takeaway was “choice” and partnership”. 

First Lady Maria Shriver introduces a Once-in-a-Lifetime Conversation: Grief, Healing and Resilience
Finally, the last session of the day was Once-in-a-Lifetime Conversation: Grief, Healing and Resilience with opening remarks by Katie Couric followed by Maria Shriver who then hosted the panel with Susan St. James, who lost her son five years ago; Elizabeth Edwards who lost HER son thirteen years ago and Lisa Niemi, Patrick Swayze’s wife who stepped in for Kelly Preston whose recent loss of her son Jett proved to difficult for her to attend.

I had planned to be at The Conference.  LA Parent Magazine asked me to blog for them as did Air America’s Nicole Sandler, my friend, a single working motherless mom who at the tender age of nineteen lost her own mother thirty Octobers ago.  There are so many of us that needed this panel. I did not attend because I just lost my mother on October 18th.

Couric talked about her life and loss of her husband and sister.  Then Shriver spoke so movingly and emotionally, and honestly about her mother’s (Eunice Shriver passed on August 15th) death and the death of her Uncle (Ted Kennedy) who died a few weeks later.  It was very personal. 

When all the women came together it was so very powerful, and healing, and helpful and resonated so much with everyone.  Loss is sadly, so universal.

A recurring theme of the conference was about being your own advocate (Amy Holmes’ line) and listening to your own voice.  I grew up hearing my mother say “you can be anything you want, just be the best you can be at whatever you choose”.   I remember my Aunt Pearl, my mother’s older sister - a thoroughly modern woman, telling me about my mom.  She said, “she would have made a great man”. 

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

This Margaret Mead quote was spoken a few times during the conference.  How appropriate.

I wish this conference could have streamed live on monitors placed in every Girls Room and Ladies Room in America but it was only available to watch on a computer.  The good news...you can still see it.  Just click here http://www.californiawomen.org/. 

 So yes. I feel empowered, inspired, comforted, supported and excited.  About being a woman.  In this, a woman’s nation.  Great job Maria.  All the gals would be proud of you.  From Mary Wollstonecraft to Anne Hutchinson, to Frances Wright to Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Victoria Woodhull to all the Margarets;  Fuller, Sanger, Meade, Mitchell, Chase, to Eleanor Roosevelt.  But let’s not kid ourselves.  We HAVE come a long way baby and we have a long way yet to go.  But - as Claire Shipman so aptly put it, with “a feminization of values” coming, I am hopeful we will get there.

Amy Simon
www.cheeriosinmyunderwear.com

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