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The Women's Conference 2010: Maria Shriver Inspires Women to be Architects of Change

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After seven years of leading The Women's Conference, Maria Shriver says that she now understands that being outside your comfort zone doesn't mean you can't do it, you can't handle it, or that you are powerless. It just means that you are uncomfortable.

The Women's Conference was held October 24 - 26 in Long Beach, CA. This was Maria Shriver's last conference as First Lady of California.

There was barely a dry eye in the arena as Maria Shriver spoke from the heart about her journey as a woman trying to find her own voice and truth. Although many of us think of Maria as "having it all" as the First Lady of California and a powerful family legacy in American politics, she revealed her struggles as a woman trying find her way. Like most women, she has been challenged to identify her self-worth outside of the labels of mom, wife, sister, daughter, and career woman -- and instead find it in her truth.

The Women's Conference this year was produced around the theme of "It's Time: Women as Architects of Change." This theme was intended to inspire women from all over the country to see this challenging moment in history as an opportunity to come together and transform themselves, their communities, our nation and our world.

Fourteen thousand women (and what seemed like a couple hundred men) gathered together to be educated, inspired, and empowered by the speeches and discussions of 85 world opinion leaders. Some of this year's speakers included First Lady Michelle Obama, Second Lady Jill Biden, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, The Honorable Sandra Day O'Connor, Diane Sawyer, Eve Ensler, Mary J. Blige, Suze Orman, and Oprah Winfrey.

When Maria found out eight years ago that her husband, Arnold Schwarzenneger, was going to run for governor of California, she was not pleased about the possibility of being in the position of First Lady. "I moaned about losing my job at NBC, and what I thought was my life as a career woman," said Maria in her opening speech at the conference Main Event. She explained how she was unsure about what it would mean to be First Lady of California, and cringed at the thought of cutting ribbons for the next four to eight years.

Fortunately Maria found the gift in the uncertainty: "Being the First Lady of California challenged me to figure out what was truly important to me."

This led her on the path to create The Women's Conference.

Who am I? What is my truth? What am I here to do? Maria's questions are the same questions we all face at one point or another in our adulthood. One woman who has faced these questions in a profound way shared her story:

Eve Ensler came on stage bald, bold, and beautiful. I had not seen Eve lately in the media, and did not know the depth of her story. Dressed in a bright red, Eve poetically described how her struggle this past year with cervical cancer was linked to "the tumor of rape that is wild across the world." She shared her own story of rape by her father at a young age, and spoke about her work over the more recent years with the women of Congo who have been brutally raped on a wide scale as a weapon of war. "500,00 vaginas violated. 500,000 wombs destroyed," she shouted with passion.

2010-10-28-EveEnsler.jpgEve shared with the audience how for years she held her father's badness as her own, but that she felt her surgery to remove her cancer finally removed it and burned it off. "I know now that no one will ever convince me that I am bad."

Eve spoke about how her cancer forced her to take in love and be cared for, which, as she said, made her human. "Cancer stopped me from running, from striving, from trying to prove my worth. It stopped me for apologizing for the truth."

She described how her struggle with cancer has allowed her to see more clearly the sick, the oppressed, and the poor -- and from that, she now knows we are all connected, all one family, and that what separates us is illusion.

What kept Eve's hope was the women and girls of the Congo. "Whenever I grew despondent or felt sorry for myself, I would think of the women and girls of the Congo who still dance after six million of their brothers and sisters have perished," she explained.

Eve Ensler is the founder of V-Day, a global activist movement to end worldwide violence against women and girls, with a particular focus on the Congo. "I knew what truly kept me alive was the women of the Congo," she said.

Not only was Eve's message heard by the 14,000 attendees in the Long Beach Convention Center arena, but one million people joined the gathering through a live webcast. Whether attending in person or watching via webcast, the message was clear: It's time for women to turn pain into power.

I have found one of the greatest gifts of The Women's Conference (this is my third year in attendance) is listening to other women's stories -- what they have been through, how they overcame challenges, and where they are today. As I have experienced their strength, it awakens my own strength. As Oprah put it: "We know if one woman can make it, so can we."

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Tickets for this year's Main Event of The Women's Conference went on sale in July and sold out in 15 minutes.

Some other highlights from The Conference Main Event's stage sessions and fourteen breakout conversations included:

  • Remarks by First Lady Michelle Obama during the opening session of the conference;
  • Diane Sawyer moderating a main stage conversation with legendary Supreme Court Justices The Honorable Sandra Day O'Connor and The Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg;
  • Campbell Brown moderating a breakout conversation titled "What Happens When Women Lead" with Yahoo! CEO Carol Bartz, Former Chairman and CEO of Xerox Corporation Anne Mulcahy, Presiding Bishop and Primate of The Episcopal Church, The Most Rev. Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori, and Disney/ABC Television Group President Anne Sweeney;
  • Gayle King moderated a breakout conversation on "Building Self Esteem and Leadership in Young Women" with Jessica Simpson, Lisa Leslie, Katherine Schwarzenegger and Global Ambassador for the Dove Self-Esteem Fund Jess Weiner.

Walking her talk as an outstanding Architect of Change, Maria Shriver created The Women's Conference not only to educate and inspire women once a year, but to directly empower women 365 days a year. Under Maria's leadership, The Women's Conference has formed partnerships with organizations in the United States and abroad to develop ongoing and far-reaching women's empowerment programs, under the title of WE Programs.

These programs have made it possible for:

• Women to get out of poverty
• Women to get needed medical care
• Women to get out of domestic abuse situations
• Women to get a college education
• Women to start a business
• Women to continue to do their work on the frontlines of humanity

Maria announced this week that The Women's Conference's WE Invest program surpassed one million dollars in microloans to women entrepreneurs in the United States. This is empowering women across the country to be Architects of Change.

But what about women who are still doubting their abilities as Architects of Change?

Maria agrees that sometimes along the way to becoming Architects of Change, we as women can get tripped up by our personal contradictions. In other words, we tend to doubt ourselves when one moment we feel like a powerful warrior goddess and the next moment we feel like a vulnerable little girl. In these moments, we lose our self-trust.

Maria's solution: "We women don't need to be either or. We can be confident and insecure. Smart and sexy. Strong and vulnerable." She shared how she has been through a process of growing comfortable with herself by growing comfortable with her contradictions.

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Toward the end of the conference, I spoke with a variety of women about their experience. One woman from Los Angeles shared with me: "I have always felt like I have a lot of good ideas and now I feel it's time to believe in them and go forward with faith in myself."

My wish is that we as women give ourselves permission to embrace our contradictions, trust our passions, and be the Architects of Change we dream to be. If we don't follow our calling, no one will... and that might leave our world in a pretty tough place.

To learn more about The Women's Conference and to watch videos from this year's conference, visit: www.womensconference.org.

Tabby Biddle, M.S. Ed., is a writer/editor dedicated to the empowerment of women and girls. Her work has been featured by The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, NPR, and other popular media. She lives in Santa Monica, CA with her husband.