Ask any woman: nothing beats girls’ night out, even if it’s a daytime event. The 14,000 (mostly) women at Maria Shriver’s Women’s Conference in Long Beach, California, on Thursday came for inspiration and empowerment. They also got a healthy dose of hilarity.
The lone male moderator, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, led off with the only all-male panel: Maria’s husband, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and everybody’s favorite investor, Warren Buffet. No stock tips from the Sage of Omaha, but he renewed his faith in the markets: “I always say that in investing you want to buy stock in a company that has a business that's so good that an idiot can run it, because sooner or later one will," Buffett said. "We have a country like that."
Cerue Konah Garlo described the protest tactic of the housewives and market women who rose up against the brutal civil war in Liberia: Until Charles Taylor was removed from office, they denied their husbands sex.
The guys wisely acknowledged the talents of women, but when Buffet asked Matthews if he’d have changed his sex to become one, no one answered. The Guv quipped, “Here in California, they do have men that become women.”
The crowd was decidedly bipartisan, but cheered CNN’s Christiane Amanpour’s remark that being a female—or a feminist--isn’t the only qualification for a job. “It’s not enough to have a good life story and shoot from the gut,” she said.
Or, as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told me as we made our way to her jam-packed panel on women as world-changers, “It’s not about gender. It’s about the agenda. We don’t want to just vote for different plumbing.”
Albright’s co-panelist Cherie Blair, a favorite target of the British press while her husband, Tony, was prime minister, said women will always be attacked. “There’s some sort of fundamental fear about women…and sexual power.” Knowing nods in the audience. She said it was rare to find an equivalent feeling about men, although, “Tony once was called ‘hunk of the week.’” She later corrected that to “torso of the week.” Either way, a mixed blessing; it was in a gay magazine.
No one better pinpointed the power of a woman’s voice than Cerue Konah Garlo, who runs an NGO in Liberia to help women. She described the protest tactic of the housewives and market women who rose up against the brutal civil war in her country: Until Charles Taylor was removed from office, they denied their husbands sex.
Comedian/author Jenny McCarthy, on a panel I moderated about facing the unimaginable, also found new power from her activism to combat her son’s autism. Where once men stopped her in the street to say, “Nice boobs,” now it’s women saying, “Thank you.”
Indra Nooyi, the tall, elegant chairman and CEO of Pepsico, recalled her first job interview after Yale—a time when she had little money or self-confidence. Dressed in a cheap pantsuit from K-Mart, she showed up wearing trousers that bared her ankles and a jacket two sizes too big. The reaction—“a collective gasp. Sartorial seizure”—was confirmed by a friendly confidant who later told her, “You look like a bit of a freak.” She wore a sari to her next interview and nailed the job.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the glass ceiling was “getting much, much thinner.” After all, she pointed out, “We haven’t had a white male secretary of state in 12 years.” Rice also volunteered the answer to the unasked question about whether she was still single because she worked so hard. “I actually think it’s because I never met anybody I wanted to marry and live with!”
But the real star of the show was its moving force, Maria Shriver, who picked up her ongoing narrative about her own journey to self-discovery with remarkably intimate revelations amidst the revelry. “Five years in, I’ve actually made peace with being First Lady,” she said, although she still hates the title. She talked about overcoming fear—how she was terrified to endorse Barack Obama publicly (because she wanted a woman to be president, because she was terrified the Clintons would hate her), and how she found herself backstage at the UCLA event with Oprah Winfrey and her cousin Caroline and heard her name announced. “I thought I would faint, or, worse, puke.” And then she walked onstage and did it.
She talked about hearing of her Uncle Teddy’s diagnosis of brain cancer, and how she was afraid, “but this time I didn’t run.” Didn’t do what she says she’d always done in the face of Kennedy disasters: “Don’t feel, don’t talk, don’t share, just shut down and keep moving. This time I called him.”
And she talked about her father’s mental debilitation and her mother’s increasing physical frailty, and then added with perfect timing, “I’m terrified I’m going to find out who I am only to lose it to Alzheimer’s.”
That afternoon, Maria presented her Minerva Awards to five “remarkable women” who have changed lives. One of them was Gloria Steinem, who later told me as we flew back to New York, “Women are the only discriminated-against group that doesn’t have a country of our own. Or a neighborhood. Or sometimes even a bar. So we make temporary countries, and Maria was our president of this one.”