Maria Shriver: A First Lady Speaks Out

As women voters in California head to a historic election—with three women at the top of the ballot—Maria Shriver talks to Gail Sheehy about politics—and her own future.

California is always ten minutes ahead of the American zeitgeist. And that's why the Tea Party should take note of what's going on in the West: While much of the nation is bracing for a Republican tsunami on election day, California women are pushing the tide in the opposite direction.

Maria Shriver, made-in-the-marrow Democrat married to the termed-out Republican governor of California, has been encouraging that pushback. "The woman's vote is critical in this election," she told me last week, just before her huge annual Women's Conference.

Who would Shriver herself prefer to see follow her husband and herself into the statehouse? I asked: Meg Whitman, the upstart Republican choice and former head of eBay who has spent more of her own fortune than any candidate in history -- $141 million—to saturate the golden state with ads bashing both her opponent and Governor Schwarzenegger? Or Jerry Brown, the Attorney General and old timer who may be too well known in the state he governed back in the 1970s and early 80s? "It would be rude for me to say," she replied, adding mischievously, "I've invited them both to lunch."

The two candidates appeared onstage along with her husband at the cavernous Long Beach convention center-- before 14,000 savvy women. Then she revealed the secret agenda behind her invitation: "I think that both Brown and Whitman understand that the woman who coming to this conference and watching it online will decide their fate."

Whitman has been losing steam among independents and, after Tuesday's vote, Brown may get one more time at bat.

"I thought I was defined by my family and growing up as a Kennedy."

According to recent polls, female voters in California do not appear to be turning out for the women candidates in this election — Whitman in the gubernatorial race and Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard for the U.S. Senate. Ideology, it seems, is trumping gender.

The women at Shriver's conference on Sunday were a mix of independents, Democrats and Republicans, who listened as the two competitors for the statehouse laid out their visions for how to bring the state back on track. The battle-scarred governor sat through their presentation, sporting a knowing smile that seemed to say: Wait until you get to Sacramento. Schwarzenegger himself had prefaced the conversation by acknowledging, "I have gone through a beating from [both] the right and from the left."

Schwarzenegger, an environmental crusader and a Republican with a small R, lives in a divided home. His wife, who is Kennedy offspring, has different politics than her husband — most evident in the 2008 election, when they supported different candidates. Their house, she said, had a John McCain poster on the door and a Barak Obama cutout in the living room.

And Shriver revealed how, when her husband first talked of running for Governor, she tried to talk him out of it. When, against her advice, he went ahead — and won — she came into the job of first lady "bitching and moaning," unhappy to give up her job at NBC, and worried about losing her identity.

However, "the job of first lady has transformed me from the outside in," she said. "I thought I was defined by my family and growing up as a Kennedy. As a journalist I was a messenger of other people's truths. As first lady I had to define my own. These last seven years have allowed me to come into my own voice."

Now that Schwarzenegger is leaving the job as Governor, Shriver finds herself once again, now 54, at a crossroads in her life. "I've got to admit I'm afraid," she said. Judging by her ability to mobilize women, though, Shriver may have a great future in politics. More than 14,000 women attended the conference at the Long Beach Convention Center.

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The three-day confab began with a march against Alzheimer's. (Shriver is leading the Women's Nation Against Alzheimer's campaign — her father, Sargent Shriver, was diagnosed with the disease in 2003.) The following day, Deepak Chopra and motivational guru Tony Robbins showered the attendees with inspirational clichés; Michelle Obama showed up, as did Laura Bush, Jill Biden, Mary J. Blige, Jane Fonda and Jane Goodall as did a handful of men. (Robert Redford — natch.)

And all was sweetness and mutual support among the women until the Whitman and Brown show, moderated by NBC's Matt Lauer. His questions were sharp-edged from the start. "This campaign has been a bloodbath," he said. "There's six days left. Will either or both of you be willing to make a pledge that you would end the negativity… pull the negative ads?"

In the pregnant pause that followed, one could almost hear gulps from the rivals. Lauer nudged: "Give the people of California a break!" Half the audience leapt to its feet and a tidal wave of applause rolled across the arena.

Brown dodged: "Sometimes negativity is in the eyes of the beholder." He was met with boos. Whitman whined: "The things that I have been called in this campaign, it's not fair to the voters of California."

Lauer wouldn't back down. He brushed aside semantics. "There's been enough talk about slurs and housekeepers, we know you are both flawed." Then, exceeding the role of referee, he challenged the two to a ceasefire: "I will give you 24 hours because I know the wheels of a campaign don't stop overnight."

When Whitman later scolds: "Here's what you need to know is that Jerry Brown in many ways left this state in worse shape than when he inherited it…" The ladies of the audience let go with loud boos. An East Coast carpetbagger doesn't get away with insulting a child of California from a family with decades of public service. "Let me tell you…" she tries as the booing grows louder, now punctuated by heckling, "Go home!"

She had lost the audience.

Afterward, the throng of women is left in a very different mood from the connectedness that prevailed at the conference. We're divided by partisanship again.

"It was just a beautiful women's conference, and all of a sudden it became uncomfortable," one well-dressed Republican woman fumed to me afterward. "The women were not supporting the woman candidate." I told her I see that as a positive — women have moved beyond voting for women just because they're of the same gender.

For women, that means the world has gotten bigger.

"Women don't have to be either - or anymore," Shriver said, adding that women can be "smart AND sexy, wise AND innocent."

About time.

Gail Sheehy is author of 15 best-selling books, including the revolutionary Passages. Her new book, Passages in Caregiving: Turning Chaos Into Confidence, will be published May 4th by HarperCollins.