Female Powered

A Toast to Fabulous Women

Glamour magazine’s annual Women of the Year ceremony celebrated a mash of pop stars, designers, and tenacious trafficking victims. Robin Givhan reports on the evening—including a flat comedy routine by the Bush women.

11.08.11 7:04 PM ET

The women’s glossy continued its tradition Monday evening at Carnegie Hall, where it gave out 11 awards to impressive activists and talents and honored a group of 21 young women of dazzling accomplishments ranging from building a school in Nepal to researching ovarian cancer.

What made for a fascinating evening was the juxtaposition of pop stars such as Jennifer Lopez, whose award was presented by a bedazzled Donatella Versace in a thick rumble of heavily accented Italian, with a young activist named Withelma “T” Ortiz-Macey. Ortiz-Macey, a petite brunette from Oakland, Calif., was a victim of child sex trafficking when she was only 10 years old. She managed to escape that horror with tenacity, luck, and help to become, at 22, a voice for those who are still trapped.

Her presence on stage, where she took a deep breath and a moment “to take this in,” was mesmerizing and powerful. With a voice that was both calm and emphatic, Ortiz-Macy talked about how children are manipulated and abused in the shadows of our communities.

She was the most potent example of impressive, womanly power. But there were any number of examples of girlish pleasures. A former secretary of state arrived wearing a broad smile and silver sequins. An Egyptian revolutionary took the stage in glittering bangles and an elegant hijab. Glamour’s party is an enticing space where women are encouraged to embrace fashion—come on, it’s fun!—but are honored for everything except their style. 

It was hard not to notice how slim and elegant 77-year-old feminist stalwart Gloria Steinem looked when she took the stage to accept a lifetime achievement award from Anita Hill. Steinem, returned to the spotlight thanks to an HBO documentary, was dressed in fluid trousers in cherry red velvet and a fitted black top with long sleeves of illusion netting. She received a standing ovation for her commitment to women’s rights and her reminder to young women that “life is one long surprise. You can prepare, but you can’t plan.”

Hill, whose hair was gently layered and whose face has gained a flattering softness with the passing of time, recalled in her remarks how she had been buoyed by Glamour’s support back in 1991 when she was honored as a woman of the year only weeks after testifying against Clarence Thomas during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings. The awards were “on the heels of a public firestorm and I‘ll never forget the warm welcome I received from the audience.”

Later, at a dinner at the Museum of Modern Art, when folks asked Hill that oh-so-obvious question, What are your thoughts on the Herman Cain sexual-harassment imbroglio? Hill—determined not to make news—said she hadn’t really been following the scandal that closely. (Oh, Professor Hill, how could you not?)

Glamour also turned a spotlight on fashion designer Tory Burch, Glee star Lea Michele, and Internet entrepreneur Arianna Huffington. It hailed Egypt’s “Facebook girl,” Esraa Abdel Fattah, who helped lead the country’s revolution, and Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, whose husband, Mark Kelly, and two stepdaughters accepted the award. It honored the extraordinarily talented artist Cindy Sherman and the incredibly cool late-night talk-show host Chelsea Handler.

And, of course, it subtly celebrated fashion, with a program dotted with presenters like Marc Jacobs, who connected it to the broader creative arts, and others such as Huffington, who hinted at its power.

It’s the fashion part that always seems to make some women uncomfortable. Not because they can’t figure out what to wear but because they can’t reconcile limousine heels—the sort that are so perilously high that walking is at one’s own risk—with brain power, chutzpah, and compassion.

This brings up the subject of former first lady Laura Bush and her daughters, Barbara Bush and Jenna Bush Hager, who were honored for their charity work. Jenna was hailed for her work in AIDS awareness, and Barbara for focusing on improving health care in poor countries. But it was Laura Bush who, of the three, was the star attraction. In a video biography, she was hailed for her advocacy for the rights of women in Afghanistan who were living under the Taliban, for her work in international health care, and for her global focus. “After Sept. 11, my perspective broadened to women around the world,” Mrs. Bush said in a scene from her video.

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The enormity of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, however, overshadowed most everything else during her final four years in the East Wing. Much of her work back then received scant media attention. And once she left the White House, interest turned to a new administration, a historic first lady, and a host of new global problems.

Glamour took a moment to look back at Laura Bush's accomplishments but also to celebrate the engaged life she currently leads.

Still, when the Bush trio accepted the award, presented by former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice—a winner in 2008—they performed a lackluster bit of shtick around the premise that the current issue of the magazine is a cross between a sex guide and a Miss Congeniality handbook. Rather than using self-deprecation as a way of injecting humor into the proceedings—and distancing themselves from the glitz of the fashion industry, as they seemed compelled to do—they bit the hand that was stroking them. Their hapless comedy made them appear unsporting, even as they offered words of encouragement to the young girls from local schools who were also part of the audience.

Fashion seems to leave some accomplished women tongue-tied or tripping over their own words. They take on a protective stance in public, and they exude insecurity in their condescension.

Relax, ladies. 

Take a cue from Jennifer Lopez. As she accepted her award, dressed in an elaborately embroidered, blush-colored, provocatively slit Versace gown, several young girls screamed, “You look beautiful.” Lopez responded with a simple “Thank you.” She then recalled a bit of advice from her grandmother: “Always go out looking nice. People like that. They respect you.”

That’s really all that any fashion magazine—on its best day—is ever trying to say.

At the MoMA dinner, the young activist Ortiz-Macey was greeted by a host of well-wishers. Of all the honorees, her story seemed the most remarkable. She’d made an incomprehensible journey from 14 foster homes, to forced prostitution, to getting her GED, to helping other girls regain their lives. She’d long since shed the sad shorts and the flimsy tank top that was her uniform when she was a kid on the street. On Monday night she told me how much she loved the sparkling midnight-blue Tory Burch dress she was wearing. Getting to wear a dress like that was never a goal, but it was certainly an accomplishment.

And when she posed for a photo with Lopez, a glamour girl of a different sort, it was a discreetly powerful fashion moment.