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Personal, Career Issues : Parley for Women Is Not All Business

Times Staff Writer

It’s not easy when you decide to go for it. Especially when 5,000 other women are going for it at the same time. And don’t know the way.

“It’s a challenge just finding a parking space, getting in here and making sense of it all,” said Jan Ballback, a career management specialist and one of the 150 speakers at the giant Conference on Women, the motivational, networking grab-bag that drew more than 10,000 women Monday and Tuesday to the Anaheim Hilton Hotel.

Some believe the fourth annual conference, sponsored by state Sen. William Campbell (R-Hacienda Heights) along with Chrysler Corp. and the U.S. Small Business Administration, is the nation’s most popular “comprehensive” women’s conference, mixing political, business and personal interests. Picketed three years ago by feminists angry over what they see as Campbell’s ambivalent voting record on women’s issues and inclusion in the agenda of topics such as cosmetic surgery, the conference nonetheless has doubled its draw every year and is still turning away hundreds of interested women.

Waited for an Hour

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Monday morning, some women waited for an hour in two-block traffic jams just to get in. When it was over, some left with sore feet from speed walking several laps around four floors of the hotel searching for 200 seminars, 125 exhibits or speeches by U.S. Transportation Secretary Elizabeth H Dole, Olympic star Wilma Rudolph and talk-show psychologist Irene Kassorla.

Some left with heads full of ideas for how to right troubled personal relationships or budget advertising for a small business. They streamed out with handbags full of business cards and briefcases full of handouts on everything from real estate careers to religious ministries, infertility problems, car leasing and cosmetic surgery for tummy tucks, breast enlargement and “facial aging.” Some left with new hairdos, designer lingerie and jewelry purchased at booths.

Some left with big blue buttons reading “Senator Bill Campbell for Controller.”

Sharon Esterly, a Democrat and financial director for Judge David O. Carter’s campaign for Congress, said she had asked Campbell aide Karen Smith if Carter could also have a booth to distribute literature at the conference but was told that would be “inappropriate.”

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Like many, Esterly regards the phenomenal popularity of Campbell’s annual women’s conferences as something of a mystery. “I was skeptical,” she said. “A conservative Republican senator putting on a conference for women seemed iffy. I was totally astonished at the response.”

To Campbell, a jolly 10-year veteran of the Senate who likes to call women “ladies,” the reason is clear: “It’s because we do it right.”

He said he and aide Smith have become experts in giving conferences from organizing the annual statewide Business Development Conference he started eight years ago. When a seminar--on small businesses--from that conference drew an unusually large number of women, Smith suggested that they hold a separate conference for women, said Campbell, who is chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Business Development.

While other conferences might be narrowly focused, he said that “we offer a good range.” With how-to seminar topics from physical fitness to political appointments, “there’s something for everybody,” Campbell said. “There are a lot of motivational topics, but they (participants) enjoy themselves while they learn.”

At the first conference, Campbell said, “we thought 500 (participants) would be a terrific success. We ended up with 1,300.” The second year drew 2,500 women and 700 were turned away. Last year, 5,500 women came and 3,000 were turned away, he said. This year, the conference was expanded to two days.

‘Force of Numbers’

Those who were attending their second or third conference said they liked the mix of professional and personal topics, the low cost ($30 a day) and the excitement of mingling with so many other successful women. “When you get together, you feel the force of numbers. We (women) are real dissipated out there,” said Jane Ballback, partner with her sister, Jan, in an Orange County career management firm.

One speaker complained that the conference is too amorphous to provide much education and serves best to give the women exposure to one another’s businesses or services. She asked not to be identified since criticism might hinder her chances of being invited back and she did not want to jeopardize that exposure for her own business.

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“It’s remarkable,” said Pat Acree, 44, a sales representative from Whittier. “It gives me an awareness of what’s out there in life and the marketplace. It’s not happening anywhere else. I wish men were as excited about self-awareness.”

Acree objected, however, to women aggressively promoting their services, such as those who had slapped an advertising sticker on Acree’s lapel. As Acree spoke, Cheryl Jaffe, author of “The Newport Beach Woman,” whizzed by, a flash of tan skin, white teeth and gold jewelry, passing out cards for a wine reception at 5 p.m. to “Meet the Newport Beach Woman and learn how to create energy in your life.”

Many Own Businesses

Nearby, a banner read “Vivi’s Numero Uno Hair Designs. Free haircuts. We support Sen. Bill Campbell for State Controller.”

About a third of the conference participants own their own businesses, according to a show of hands at the opening session.

Women now hold the majority of professional jobs in the United States, Campbell told the audience at the opening session Monday. Businesses owned by women are the fastest-growing segment in the U.S. economy, and California women own four times the number of businesses as do women in other states, said Carol Crockett, acting director of the Women’s Business Ownership Program for the U.S. Small Business Administration.

One reason Chrysler co-sponsored the conference is that by 1990 nearly half of all new car buyers will be women, Pat Smorra, general sales manager for Chrysler in California, told the 5,000 women at the opening session. “We know we have to change things about our system,” he said. “We tell our dealers today women don’t want to be treated like ‘women’ but like customers.”

Since dozens of other corporations helped underwrite the conference, costs could be limited to $30 a day, said Kathleen McDannel, a member of the National Organization for Women and member of the 100-member advisory committee for the Conference on Women. “We couldn’t do it without them,” she said.

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It is still too expensive for “real middle-class women,” and many women cannot afford to take the time off work to come to the conference, said Diana Workman, peer educational program coordinator for the Orange County branch of Planned Parenthood, which had a booth at the conference in a room next to an exhibit by the Traditional Values Coalition. Moreover, Workman said there were only two agenda topics on substantive political issues this year: a debate on abortion between Workman and Jo Ellen Allen of the Eagle Forum, and a seminar on comparable worth.

“The rest is fluff,” she said.

About 20 women attended the abortion debate, she said. While other seminars were held twice, hers was held only once and her booth was placed inside a hard-to-find room, Workman said. “My feeling is that (organizers) didn’t take it all that seriously. . . . Dress for success, hairdos, people are flowing out of those things. In my mind, women are interested in more meaty issues. . . .”

Kassorla Popular Speaker

But 80% of those attending the conference signed up to hear Kassorla, the talk-show radio psychologist, who said women are mostly interested in family and love. At her speeches, women’s questions consistently stem from a “terror of rejection and humiliation.” The author of “Go For It!--How to Win at Love, Work and Play,” Kassorla has been the top draw at Campbell’s last three conferences, she said.

“He (Campbell) says I triple his gate.”

“I help people feel good about themselves,” Kassorla explained. “If you’re interested in breast implants, OK. I want to do it psychologically, but if some can do it with perfume, OK.”

Repeat participants in the conference, Kassorla said, come to her and say: “When you said (whatever), it changed my life. It’s why I came. They say, you gave me a right to fail. A right not to be the perfect mother. A right to binge and (then) not get back on binging.

“Women are really what’s happening now. They need all the guidance and self-esteem they can get. I’m enthusiastic and I love people.”

When the Rev. Robert Schuller canceled at the last minute for Monday’s pre-lunch invocation, Kassorla stepped in. In her impromptu prayer, Kassorla noted that she was a psychologist and asked “a special blessing for you, for us, for Sen. Campbell. Give yourself a kiss and be kind to yourself.”

Ovation for Dole

“It was more like a commercial for a psychology practice,” quipped Judith Alkire, a pharmacist from Mission Viejo.

In contrast, the women listened attentively to Dole discuss progress in the privatization of transportation and gave her a standing ovation.

In 1983, about a dozen feminists protested the conference for including seminars on cosmetic surgery and not including child care or seminars on such issues as affordable housing, the environment and minorities. They also charged that Campbell had voted against bills promoting affirmative action, state-sponsored child-care facilities, recognition of spousal rape and freedom of choice on abortion.

“People couldn’t believe a Republican was interested in women’s issues,” Campbell said about the controversy. But partly as a result of the criticism, the conference’s advisory committee has grown from five to 100 women--Democrats, Republicans and apolitical leaders, about half of whom are constituents, Campbell said.

Their suggestions have resulted in new seminars on such topics as careers after retirement, comparable worth and child abuse. Last year, Orange County Supervisor Bruce Nestande spoke at a session on transportation in Orange County. Off-site child care was available this year through the Children’s Home Society.

The conferences, Campbell aide Smith said, keep Campbell in touch with important issues. On women’s issues, Campbell claims, he has a “good voting record.”

He said he has not noticed a breakdown by sex of voters who support him or whether that has changed since he started giving the conferences.


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