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A woman's nation: tears and empowerment

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The state Women's Conference, when it began almost two decades ago, was all about women changing the world. The speakers tended toward the practical. The frills were nonexistent.

Under the direction of First Lady Maria Shriver, last week's conference was a two-day extravaganza, a Technicolor version of the event of old. Much of the focus was "The Shriver Report," a collaboration between Shriver and a Washington think-tank, which declared two weeks ago that we have become "a woman's nation."

But the heart of the conference occurred at lunch on Day 2, when Shriver, her voice breaking, for the first time publicly reflected on her mother's recent death. Her words brought thousands to tears in a silent arena.

It was hard to imagine the same personal scene at a conference of men. But that was part of the point, for the theme of the conference might well have been: We still want to change the world. We just want to do it on our terms.

The phrase "a woman's nation" reflects potential as much as reality. As the report indicated, half the paid workers in the nation are women, and they are the primary breadwinners in four of 10 families. Most Americans, men and women, say that having women in the workforce is a positive.

But the rise in women's economic heft has come about in part because the national recession disproportionately has hit male-oriented jobs in areas like home construction and finance. Women still earn substantially less than men and remain underrepresented relative to their share of the population in such jobs as law firm partners and chief executives, two traditional measurements of success.

In her report, Shriver declared the battle of the sexes to be over, replaced by negotiation. Translation: In all the difficult decisions of daily life, the things that get us from here to there, much still needs to be worked out.

That rang true to Barbara O'Connor, who attended the conference. O'Connor, a communications professor at Cal State Sacramento, has spent years counseling young women who want power on their own terms, who want a career and a family.

"I think we need a new definition of the women's movement, and it has to include men," O'Connor said. Her students, she said, look at her generation and shake their heads. "They all look at the women and what they have given up. There needs to be a discussion of how to do it differently."

Differently, that is, than the 63-year-old O'Connor. She never married and never had children, "and I've struggled with that guilt all my life," she said. "I think a lot of women are saying, 'I played by the rules and have outward indices of success -- and where has it gotten me?' "

For her generation, of course, there was far more pressure to choose one over the other -- usually home over career.

And there was less societal assistance if you went the other way. Even now, despite improvements, day care, flex time and other assistance are hard to come by.

Part of the reason is that women are no political monolith. Past decades have seen friction between working women and stay-at-home women, each nursing perceived slights and working against a unified insistence on things that could help both groups.(More than one speaker at the conference called for that to end, to much applause.)

Although women are the biggest voting bloc in California, they hold a small proportion of elective seats, in part because when push comes to shove, most women vote for ideology over gender.

That may be tested anew this year in the state's two biggest races, for governor and U.S. Senate.

Former EBay chief executive Meg Whitman is running for the Republican nomination for governor, and so far is getting the same support from women as men. The same is true for potential Republican Senate candidate Carly Fiorina, a former head of Hewlett Packard.

In neither case is there a gender gap in polls of potential primary voters.

Some political analysts surmise that the lack of a gap is because the pressure is off: There are now enough women in high-ranking positions that it is harder to invoke the passions that led to firsts, like election nationwide of several women senators in 1992 or Hillary Clinton's close second in last year's presidential contest.

For Kathy Hunn of Antelope Valley, who also attended the conference, politics is only one measure of success. Though happy to see women on the ballot, she said, "I won't vote for a woman just because she's a woman."

Hunn, a high school counselor, was among the people at the conference for whom the old icons of success -- the corner office or big salary -- don't matter.

She has attended for five years, and, inspired by what others were doing, found herself nursing a notion to create a reading program for homeless children. She called a nearby shelter and now operates a volunteer program in which she collects books, reads to kids and gives them the books to keep.

"I saw the need coming, and I got it going," she said. "If I hadn't been coming here, the idea would have been unformed."

cathleen.decker@latimes.com

Each Sunday, The Week examines implications of major stories. It is archived at latimes.com/theweek.

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