Women Changing the World
For the past 30 years, Maria has also been one of Oprah's dearest friends, but she's probably best known for being part of a political dynasty. Maria is the niece of President John F. Kennedy and senators Robert and Edward "Teddy" Kennedy.
Since she was a little girl, Maria has witnessed American history unfold firsthand. In August 2008, her famous family found themselves in the spotlight once again when her uncle Teddy took the stage at the Democratic National Convention. A few months before the convention, Senator Kennedy was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. Many doubted that he'd have the strength to speak, but Maria expected nothing less from the man known as the lion of the Senate.
Photo: Getty Images
Maria says she thinks of her uncle as a warrior. "I say to my kids, 'You have to look at life as a marathon.' This is a person who people wrote off, counted out [and] said he would never amount to anything, and look at him," she says. "[He's] the lion of the Senate ... a fighter. Somebody who knows every kid in our family. Someone who understood the power of family and loyalty and humor and patriotism and fought and created this extraordinary career and changed millions of people's lives."
Despite his diagnosis, Maria says her uncle is doing well. Recently, she says he took her and her mother, who has suffered several strokes this year, sailing. "Mother's in the wheelchair and on the boat, and he's got cancer. The two of them are out there, and I'm like, 'Whoa, this is like a reality show,'" she says. "It's the circle of life, like I say to my kids. You have to live in the now, live in the moment and be so grateful. I'm a big believer in saying to people all the time: 'I love you. Thank you for what you've done for me.'"
Photo: The Women's Conference
Maria says she inherited the hosting duties when her husband took office, but she's worked to make the conference something more than a small gathering of businesswomen. "I said, 'I want to approach it as a newswoman. I want to create kind of a television show. I want to bring people from all over the world,'" she says.
Over the years, it's become the largest gathering of women in the nation. "The conference has grown by leaps and bounds," she says. "The goal of it was, for me anyway, to make every woman feel that she was the leader she was looking for—that she had that within herself."
Women across California are responding to Maria's message. In 2008, the conference broke records by selling out all 14,000 tickets in less than three hours—faster than sales for a Madonna concert! Maria says she was stunned by the response. "It shows me people want to come together," she says. "They want to hear inspirational people, and they want to be part of a community, which is so exciting."
If you can't make it to California, you can still see The Women's Conference's speeches and awards ceremony. Find out how to watch a live stream!
What inspiring speakers are on the schedule this year? On October 22, 2008, The Women's Conference will welcome Bono, Warren Buffett, Bonnie Raitt, Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice and many more to the stage.
At the end of the day, Maria says she hopes every mother, daughter and sister feels united under a common cause. "I think so much divides us. We're always like: 'This woman is a stay-at-home mom. This woman works. This woman is pro-choice. This woman's pro-life,'" she says. "It's all about labels that divide us. ... Both of your choices are right. You've chosen to have children. You've chosen not to. They're both right. [I want] to say that we're all in this together."
Maria says Minerva embodies what it means to be a strong woman. "You need to be a warrior at certain times, and you also need to be the voice of peace and compassion," she says. "Why not create an award for women who are on, what I call, the 'front lines of humanity,' day in, day out? Some of whom are well known, some of whom are not."
Past recipients have included women like former first lady Betty Ford, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi and space pioneer Sally Ride.
In time, Maria says she hopes these awards become like the Nobel Prize for women and help every citizen realize his or her potential. "Every single person is capable of being an architect of change, even if it's just speaking up at your own dinner table," she says. "Even if it's speaking up for your child in school, fighting for the right education plan for your child, doing something in your community...every single person, I believe, is capable of that."
Photo of Louise Hay: Courtesy of Hay House
Californian Louise Hay is receiving this award for being a leader in the spiritual community. "[She] was the first person to really get out and talk about self-improvement and mind over matter and how important positive thinking is," Maria says. Watch Louise's inspiring story.
Betty Chinn started a one-woman operation and made a huge difference in her community. When she saw that people were hungry, she started feeding thousands. "I wanted to honor someone who also did it one person at a time and just did it her own way," Maria says. See how Betty is making a difference.
The third recipient is Ivelise Markovits, a Los Angeles resident who works with juvenile delinquents. Maria says Ivelise imagined a better world for America's youths and created an organization devoted to that cause. Find out more about Ivelise.
One honoree you may recognize is tennis legend Billie Jean King. "Every girl who is able to compete in a sport today in a public school owes a debt of gratitude to her and for so many other reasons," Maria says.
The list isn't complete without the final Minerva Award winner, Gloria Steinem. This woman is considered by many to be the mother of all feminism. Oprah says she wouldn't be sitting on stage today if Gloria hadn't fought for equal rights and equal pay for women.
Eventually, Gloria landed a risqué assignment. She changed her name and went undercover as a Playboy bunny. For about a month, Gloria donned the infamous ears and worked at the Playboy Club. The article she wrote exposed the treatment of the women who worked in the club.
After the story went to print, Gloria's journalistic integrity was questioned. "It was already very difficult for women in general to get serious political writing assignments," she says. "And being a bunny, trust me, did not help."
Undeterred, Gloria became a well-known writer and best-selling author of books like Moving Beyond Words and Revolution from Within, but it was her controversial crusade for women's rights that made her a household name.
In 1972, Gloria made history again when she co-founded Ms. magazine, a forward-thinking magazine for women. The first issue sold out across the country, and from that groundbreaking concept came the Ms. Foundation, the group responsible for Take Your Daughter (and now son) to Work Day.
At 74 years old, Gloria is still paving the way for women everywhere.
As women age, Gloria says they gain more experience in life. She feels this experience increases the chance of women voicing their own opinions when they deal with inequalities firsthand. "It's part of the reason that women do get more activist, more radical, you might say, with age because we have to experience what the unfairnesses are in the workplace and who takes care of kids and who doesn't," she says.
As the November 5, 2008, election approaches, Oprah says it's important to remember that Gloria played a big part in changing the political landscape. "Everybody agrees that the women are going to determine who wins this election," Oprah says. "The fact that Hillary Clinton could be a candidate for president of the United States and Sarah Palin can be a nominee for vice president of the United States would not have happened had there not been you kicking that door."
Gloria is quick to credit former U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm, a past presidential candidate, for these accomplishments. "I ran as a delegate for Shirley Chisolm in 1972," she says. "She only ran in six states, I think, but she took the 'white male only' sign off the White House door."
Then, at the age 66, Gloria shocked the world—and herself—when she married David Bale. "We were shocked that we fell in love and wanted to live together," Gloria says. "But the actual legal marriage part probably had more to do with the fact that he had been born in South Africa and lived in England, and he had visa problems. I thought about it, and I thought, 'Well, you know, ... I've fought for 30 years to make marriage laws equal, so why not?'"
Gloria's insight carried through to Rita's professional life, as well. "She kind of looked like us, but she had a brain that was completely different," Rita says. "She was saying things that were new ideas to us. It made me think that maybe there was another option that was out there for me."
Decades later, Rita says she's still in awe of Gloria. "You are as inspiring, vibrant, passionate and exciting in your 70s as you were in the '70s when you started all of this," she says.
Photo: Billie Jean King Enterprises/Michael Cole
Before the bill passed, there were quotas in schools that limited the number of women who could become doctors or lawyers, but Title IX has changed all that. "I think most people think it's about sports because we're so visible," Billie Jean says. "But it's really about education."
Billie Jean also created the first female professional tennis tour and fought for equal prize money for women's and men's champions. "This is how far we've come, people. When Billie Jean won Wimbledon in 1968, her prize money was just 37 percent of what the male tennis player won. That was 40 years ago," Oprah says. "When Venus [Williams] won Wimbledon in summer in 2008, she took home the exact same prize as the men's champion."
While she was a member of World Team Tennis, Billie Jean also became the inspiration for the Elton John song "Philadelphia Freedom." "He used to sit on the bench at The Spectrum in Philly and be our cheerleader," Billie Jean says. "Then one day, we're going to a concert and he goes, 'I want to write a song for you.'"
She defeated Bobby Riggs and opened the door to the idea of endless possibilities for women—empowering them and giving them hope. Billie Jean says she thinks she won because because she respected who Bobby was and what he had accomplished.
Reflecting on the match, Billie Jean says she knew it was more than a game of tennis. It was about social change. She wanted to create equal opportunity for men and women and knew this match would allow her to do so. "That was such a defining moment for me when I played Bobby Riggs, because I knew it was about social change," she says. "This was a forum that I would never have again."
Even though Billie Jean won, she says she still has nightmares about it today. "I wake up in a sweat thinking, 'God, I haven't played that match,'" Billie Jean says. "[Then] I go: 'Billie, you're 64. It's okay. It's over. It's over.'"
"Since the Olympic Games, I've been traveling all over the country giving talks, and women come up to me and say how inspirational I am to them. And I think back on how inspirational Billie Jean King has been to me," Dara says. "I really wouldn't be here today if it weren't for you. So I really appreciate everything you've done for women and women in sports."
The admiration goes both ways. "Everybody was holding their breath for you, and we're so proud of you," Billie Jean tells Dara. "You rock! "
"I don't think I would be where I am now in tennis without what she's done," Venus says. "For me to have this opportunity to make a living doing what I love is really all thanks to Billie."
"What I admire most about Billie is what she did not just for tennis, but what she did for all females. She opened the door for every woman athlete that's playing in any sport right now," Serena says. "Billie, you know I love you. Thank you so much for everything that you've done for me, for my sister, for all female athletes. You're a great person, and hopefully one day I can become a quarter of the woman that you are."
Billie Jean says the sport of tennis is a metaphor for life. "Every time a ball comes to me in tennis ... I have to make a decision and I have to live with the consequence," she says. "I have to accept responsibility for it. And that's what we have to do in real life. When we win in life, it's accepting responsibility."
Get the schedule of speakers at The Women's Conference and watch the entire event on Oprah.com!
Read about all the winners of the 2008 Minerva Awards.
Watch the conversation continue after the show.