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Roles Still a Challenge for Women

Many at the annual Long Beach conference who recall fighting to have careers now struggle for balance between work, home.

September 27, 2006|Lisa Richardson | Times Staff Writer

If there was one moment in time that makes every career woman cringe, it was the heyday of dressing for success with shoulder pads fit for a quarterback and worse -- the little floppy bowtie.

It wasn't just a fashion detour, that bowtie, it signaled a wrong turn into imitating men instead of bringing a feminine sensibility to the work world.

At least, that seemed to be the verdict of thousands of women who discussed issues of work, life, love, family and self-renewal -- and poked fun at their earnest efforts to be taken seriously summed up by that dreadful bowtie -- at the 20th annual California Governor and First Lady's Conference on Women.

Many of the 11,000 women who filled the Long Beach Convention Center on Tuesday remembered life before the Women's Movement, when there were few female lawyers and fewer female doctors; no girls in Little League or women serving at church altars; no female senators, police officers, firefighters or chief executives.

First there was a time of hope, as women charged out into the workplace. Then a time of success as women broke glass ceilings and garnered corner offices. Now, speaker after speaker said Tuesday, it's a time of tension as women seek to balance work and home.

Before, women were chained to the home. Now, too many feel chained to the desk, said author Anna Quindlen.

Some women were baffled, however, to see their daughters shrug off their hard-won gains and achievements.

"I feel like everything we did they're breaking down and our granddaughters are going to have to build back up," one woman said.

Or, as New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd put it: "We went from playing with Barbie, to demonizing Barbie, to remaking ourselves as Barbie."

Dowd added that the trick now for women is to strike a balance between femininity and strength. "The only mistake they made [before] was when they tried to imitate men," she said.

Dowd was one of a host of high-powered speakers and panelists at the convention. She was interviewed at the conference by Tim Russert of "Meet the Press." Russert, who along with the Dalai Lama was one of the few male speakers, apparently has a huge fan base of deeply wonky women; he rivaled the religious leader in popularity.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger briefly addressed the throng early in the morning after being introduced by his two teenage daughters. He spoke of the women he honored in his life -- his mother, wife, mother-in-law -- then fled.

"One of the things I've learned along the way is that when a lot of women on a mission get together, smart men get out of the way," he said to laughter.

But his wife, California First Lady Maria Shriver, spoke to the arena full of women as if each one was a girlfriend, or maybe a sister, sharing her personal challenges, her ambitions, her occasional insecurities.

Last year at this time, Shriver was stressed out. Her mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, fell and broke her hip just hours before the conference began.

"Then 24 hours later, she had a stroke in my arms," Shriver said. Five days after that, initiatives backed by her husband were trounced in the special election, and then she turned 50 years old.

Already wrestling with losing the journalism job she loved because her husband was elected governor, Shriver said she finally gave herself permission to slow down: "For the first time, this workaholic child of the women's revolution decided to stand still."

And homemaking diva Martha Stewart spoke of the importance of beauty and comfort in creating a happy home and family life.

She also elicited a laugh when she recounted how Shriver, who was assigned by NBC-TV to do a story on Stewart before she became famous, took one look at Stewart's multicolored eggs and cashmere blankets and decreed she'd never amount to much.

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lisa.richardson@latimes.com

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