Skip to main content

She Said, She Said: Women’s Conference Attempts to Transform America

In early September the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State convened its first women’s conference. The three-day event, titled “Transforming America: Women and Leadership in the 21st Century,” brought together an ensemble of powerful voices and opinions from women leaders in government, media, the financial sector, the corporate world and education. About 1,000 people attended each day of the conference.

The audience represented a range of experiences, ages, ethnicities, and political and religious values. The weekend allowed undergraduates to network with corporate executives and those long retired to have a word with the newly hired.

Cecil Andrus speaking at podium

In an unexpected moment, former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus took the microphone. Facing the mostly female audience, he pointed to the all female panel of Idaho lawmakers and said, “You see before you several outstanding role models. Pick a role model, find out where you want to go and be prepared for your opportunity.”

Following are highlights from the conference.

Sandra Day O'Connor speaking at a podium Sandra Day O’Connor

Gov. Andrus described retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor as a truly independent member of the U.S. Supreme Court who often found herself in the “pragmatic middle of difficult issues,” noting that introducing her to the women’s conference audience was one of the greatest moments of his life.

The first woman appointed to the High Court introduced herself as “just an unemployed cowgirl.” O’Connor recounted her days growing up on a cattle ranch, the difficulties as a woman of getting a paying job after she finished law school, her rise through state politics and the court system in Arizona, and the phone call that changed her life – when President Ronald Reagan called to say he would like to appoint her to the land’s highest court.

“That early experience made me realize that maybe I did have a role to play in shaping the character of our nation,” she said. While work on the Supreme Court was challenging and rewarding, upon retirement in 2006 O’Connor turned her attention to another goal — restoring civic education in public schools. She believes it is the most important work she will ever do.

“The skills and knowledge of citizenship are not handed down through the gene pool. You have to learn them. Our society suffers from an alarming degree of public ignorance when it comes to how our government works,” she said. “Public education about civics is the only long-term solution to preserving an independent judiciary and a constitutional government.

O’Connor was the keynote speaker at the conference and recipient of the 2013 Andrus Leadership Award.

 Bonnie McElveen-Hunter

McElveen Hunter at Podium 2

“I believe women who own businesses can somehow march to a different drummer,” said Bonnie McElveen, former U.S. ambassador to Finland, chairman of the Board of Governors of the American Red Cross and founder of Pace Communications. She believes the most effective way to improve the world is to create many more jobs. “The whole world wants, more than anything, a good full-time job. With that job comes dignity and purpose.”

It also means success that can be shared with others. At a time when the economy was tanking, her company increased its community giving from 10 percent to 15 percent of its profits.

“All of our success only matters when we share and when we lift while we climb,” she said. “Helping other women is one of the small things we each can do with great love.”

Deanna Oppenheimer

Named as the second-most-influential woman in finance by “U.S. Banker” magazine in 2010, Deanna Oppenheimer was the first international woman to be appointed to a leadership position at the 350-year-old Barclays retail bank.

“When I started out my career, I never set out to be a first at anything,” Oppenheimer said. “I just thought it was really important to do the best at what you were given.”

As the founder and CEO of CameoWorks, a global retail and financial services firm, Oppenheimer encouraged women to stay true to themselves.

“Don’t undersell what you do, but at the same time, don’t try to outman a man. The most important thing is that you’ve got to be yourself.”

Karen Crouse

New York Times golf writer Karen Crouse shook up the sports world in 2012 when she very publicly challenged Augusta National’s ban on female membership, stating that she would prefer not to cover the Masters again until a woman was invited to join the elite male club. The negative reaction her statement engendered was not a surprise. “I am an anthropologist assigned to this patriarchal society called golf,” she said. “Hopefully I am changing attitudes. This is really the last male bastion of sexism and chauvinism. I have to change people’s minds one tournament at a time.”

Crouse also noted that, “Women don’t really seem to support women’s athletics. We have to support other women in a professional and personal sense.”

Alexandra Fuller

“I grew up without freedom of speech,” said Alexandra Fuller. “As you can tell, I’ve never fully recovered.” The audacious and often galvanizing New York Times bestselling author told a mix of stories — both humorous and gut-wrenching —about her family and the war-ridden regions of Central Africa, where she lived as a child. At one point, Fuller addressed the men in the room saying, “We are your daughters. We gave birth to you. You are our fathers, brothers, lovers, husbands — how are you not taking to the streets in outrage at what continues to happen to us?” Fuller said. “Because what happens to us happens to you, too.”

 Barbara Morgan

Imagine you are an astronaut orbiting space in a 4.5 million-pound spaceship when you and your crew receive a call from mission control back on Earth informing you that a piece of your protective shield was damaged at launch. You grimly remember that this was the cause of the Space Shuttle Columbia’s destruction when it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere. What do you do? According to Barbara Morgan, distinguished educator in residence at Boise State, you do what she and her crewmates did — you get back to work. “Fear is debilitating, but courage is contagious,” Morgan said during her talk about women and risk.

“As a teacher, I’ve noticed the moments in which our students learn best are often the moments that involve risks,” she said. “The risk of asking a question or giving an opinion in front of others, or making a mistake. In order to learn, we must take risks.”

 Ann Taylor Flemming

“Imagine a big life — the biggest life you can,” was the first exhortation on Ann Taylor Fleming’s list of 10 things we should tell our daughters. The prolific writer and long-time essayist for the “PBS Newshour” told the crowd to dream big.

“Don’t think small,” she said. “Re-imagine who you are and your place on the planet and what it means to be alive and what it means to be a woman and what it means to be an engaged person at this time in this place.”

Fleming described the early days of her freelance writing career in the 1970s as sitting in the living room, typing away on her (now non-existent) Smith Corona typewriter and sending off her work “into the ether.” She urged young women attendees to seek out work that moves them to wake up each morning.

“Find something you are passionate about and get paid for it,” Fleming said. “Work that you love is as important as love.”

Lynda Obst

lynda obst headshot

Hollywood producer Lynda Obst is best known for her classic movies “One Fine day,” “Sleepless in Seattle” and “Flashdance.” As the older sister in a family full of boys, Obst’s father taught her how to swing the bat and make baskets right along with her brothers. The self-proclaimed Boise State Broncos fan shared some tips on winning and losing with grace.

“I learned how to lose a game and I learned how to win a game,” Obst said. “ When you win, don’t gloat and when you lose, learn how to say ‘Next.’ All you want is another swing at the bat.”

Thanks to Leah Sherwood for providing this article. Ms. Sherwood is a biological sciences major, currently working as an intern at Boise State University’s Office of Communications and Marketing.