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Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and actress Jane Lynch asked if someone would take their picture together. Feminist icon Gloria Steinem and her friend, rom-com favorite Jennifer Aniston, warmed up backstage before their main-event interview. In the front row, Martha Stewart settled in near Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue, 10-year-old football player and YouTube phenom Samantha Gordon and Mae Jemison, the first woman of color to go into space, to live-tweet the event.
They were all part of a kaleidoscopic lineup gathered to explore the state — and future — of women in the 21st century, at the first Makers Conference, a three-day event at the picturesque Terranea Resort in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.
With its origins in a PBS-sponsored television-and-video project producing portraits of successful women in many fields, the conference emerged in three dimensions as a warm celebration of the more than 500 women attending it. The onstage conversation kicked off with Steinem talking with Aniston about the beginnings of the women’s movement and the generational dangers of online pornography.
On- and offstage, many of the attendees agreed, the prognosis for contemporary feminism rested in how women would be treated online.
Scheduled to speak during Tuesday’s sessions were Sandberg, Stewart and Gordon, PBS anchor Gwen Ifill, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, actress Geena Davis, talk-show host Chelsea Handler, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong, SpaceX CEO Gwynne Shotwell and former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
Introduced by Kara Swisher, emcee of the event and co-executive editor of Re/code, Steinem and Aniston — in her debut role as interviewer– walked smiling onto the intimate stage. Steinem spoke about her recent trip to India and the book she has been working on about being on the road. She called herself a “hopeaholic.” Stewart tweeted that out.
During the Q&A session, a woman asked Steinem for advice for the next generation of feminists.
“They’re living both in a world I know and don’t know,” Steinem answered. “They’re living in the future.”
Today, Steinem said, she’s increasingly worried about how online pornography is affecting individual lives and women’s progress: “Porn means female slavery,” she said, calling for the issue to be discussed as a societal concern.
Another questioner asked Steinem if it’s ever okay to use sex appeal to get further in your career.
“If women could sleep their way to the top, there would be a lot more women at the top,” Steinem responded. “It’s not that easy.”
Relaxing after the program, Steinem sat down to chat about how the Internet (and the accessibility and pervasiveness of online porn) is changing how people perceive the female body.
“It’s gotten worse,” she said. “Young men and women’s only access to what the nude female looks like is online pornography. The Internet has put it in every living room, in every dorm room.”
Plastic surgeons, Steinem said, are noticing an increasing number of requests for labia surgery (to match unrealistic images of video-projected beauty?). And she suggested that the content of online porn — often violent power plays — gives the impression that all women find pleasure in submission.
“Females are still the only remaining group who are accused of enjoying their own pain,” Steinem said. “As though we like being bound and whipped.”
Steinem had to leave the party to finish a blog post — her first blogging experience — for the New York Times, as part of a series she was doing on her work in India.
“The Internet is not inherently bad,” Steinem said. “It’s the medium, not the message.”
At the welcome dinner, floating white candles and white orchids glowed atop black tablecloths, and the menu had a prompt for a “conversation course” after the cauliflower bisque — the question: “If you woke up one day as a member of the opposite sex, what’s the first thing you’d do?”
Dinner was followed by dessert and standup sets by four up-and-coming female comics. After 28-year-old comedian Beth Stelling did her five minutes, she said backstage that the hardest part of being a female comedian today is the Twitter and YouTube comments.
“I’ve been completely torn down by comments. They have access to you, because we all have Twitter handles,” Stelling said. “It’s like I’m riding my bike down the street and can’t roll up the window, but I still want to ride my bike.”