Estrogen In The Air: A firsthand account of the Women’s Conference

Editor’s Note: Barbara Guggenheim is a partner in Guggenheim, Asher, Associates, one of America’s best known art consultant firms. She’s built collections for Coca-Cola and Sony, Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg, among many others. She holds a doctorate in Art History, has taught on the college level, lectured at the Whitney Museum and worked at Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Barbara has been profiled for Vanity Fair and interviewed on “Larry King Live.” Her recent book is The Ultimate Organizer: Be Your Own Personal Assistant, written with Nadine Schiff.

I went to the California Women’s Conference for one reason – to test the waters by selling advance copies of a book I have coming out in January. My co-author and I thought it was a great venue for soliciting responses. We sold all the copies we brought, which was thrilling. Yet, I came away with a lot more.

The California Women’s Conference, held in Long Beach every fall, is the largest of its kind. Being in the company of 15,000 women, all trying to learn more, climb the corporate ladder or give back, is awesome. As women, we’ve come a long way, and the issues that we face today have changed since the days of Gloria Steinem and Bette Friedan. The conference takes that into account and addresses issues that women face today – how to de-stress, deal with grief and make tough decisions, to name a few of the topics discussed.

For a day and a half everyone is running from one panel or speech to another, with breaks for mingling and shopping in a giant exhibition hall filled with booth after booth selling a variety of wares from makeup to secondhand furs. A star-studded cast of celebrities, including Schwarzenegger, Katie Couric (who welcomed the smell of estrogen in the air), Richard Branson, Geena Davis and Eve Ensler gave us tips and tools for negotiating the world today. All were interesting, but Madeleine Albright went balls out (can you say that in a room of 15,000 women?) and got a roaring ovation for insisting, “There should be a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” Amen.

As much as I enjoyed seeing the celebs I look up to, I was more deeply affected by Victoria Jackson, a successful makeup entrepreneur, who broke my heart describing her sleepless nights in her race to find a cure for her teenage daughter’s disease. Somaly Mam, a runaway sex slave who runs shelters for other girls like her in Cambodia, was unforgettable in providing a lesson in fearlessness. And then there was a woman selling Nepalese weavings made by the kids in an orphanage she singlehandedly supports. That was impressive.

Since Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor, the conference has been Maria Shriver’s baby. This year, she herself provided all 15,000 attendees with one of the most affecting moments of the conference. As the moderator on a panel on grief, healing and resilience, with Elizabeth Edwards, Lisa Niemi (Patrick Swayze’s wife) and Susan Saint James, Maria began the session by pouring her heart out to all assembled about the loss of her mother and uncle. By the end, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. I wish I could have wrapped my arms around Maria and everyone else in the hall who has suffered loss, to assure them that they’re not alone in their grief.

Would I suggest that you go next year? Absolutely, but please remember to wear sneakers and carry a box of Kleenex.

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