Since millions of women across the globe came together to protest the inauguration of President Donald Trump last month, there has been no shortage of high profile leaders speaking out about what this presidency will mean for women.
On Wednesday, Feb. 1 the Annual Watermark Conference for Women, Silicon Valley was held at the San Jose Convention Center. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Golden Globe award winner Viola Davis had prominent speaking roles. In years past, the sold-out event has boasted big names like Hillary Clinton and actress Mindy Kaling. This year, the conference had plenty of star power but also played host to the country’s other two female Secretaries of State–Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice.
Sheryl Sandberg started the morning off by openly discussing the healing process she has undergone in the wake of the tragic loss of husband David Goldberg nearly two years ago. Sandberg will be releasing a new book later this year, revisiting her continuing quest to cope with the grief of losing a spouse. The book will talk about resilience and how to create stronger marriages, raise healthy children and build sustainable workplaces.
Sandberg said she was never one to get excited about her birthday but these days, she feels grateful just to be alive another year. She spoke of how alienated she felt in the early days after her husband’s death when so many of the people around her didn’t know what to say, so they said nothing. She urged the audience to do more should they find themselves in a similar situation because saying the wrong thing is better than saying nothing at all.
Viola Davis, spoke to a crowd of 6,500. Her speech was at times moving and motivational with her repeating theme, the mantra she cites to her daughter every day, “I own my story, the good and the bad.” Davis believes it’s crucial to take control of one’s own story, admitting, “I spent a great deal of my life trying to be someone else and live someone else’s life. The power in owning one’s story is that it connects us to people and it relinquishes fear.”
Davis spoke poetically about the relationship between poverty and violence.
“I came into this world a statistic,” she said. “But here’s the thing about poverty: It’s not just a financial state. It gets in your mind and destroys your psyche.”
She said she would often stay up all night as a child, terrified her abusive father would kill her mother. One day, her sister posed a question that changed everything. She asked Davis what she wanted to do with her life, to avoid ending up like their parents. The answer came soon after watching Cicely Tyson transform herself during a performance. It was then that Davis realized she wanted to be an actor and made it her mission to do so.
She ended her speech with an impassioned call to women and young people saying, “We live in a time where women need to be united. Forces are disabling us. To the young people looking for inspiration: what the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls the butterfly. As soon as you feel like the world is ending, you are enough.”
Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice wasted no time in diving right into some of the most important issues facing our country, in a conversation moderated by Recode founder Kara Swisher. The two former secretaries, both now working as professors at Georgetown and Stanford University respectively, held no punches when it came time to discuss the current administration on every issue from national security to education.
Albright explained that no matter who won the election last November, we are looking at a very complicated time in history. Rice said the greatest national threat is our failure in the K-12 education system. She went on to describe the threats we face as a nation, saying the best foreign policy we have is allowing people from other places to come here and see what it’s like to be in America. She explained, “We are not a nationality. We’re not a religion. We’re an idea.”
Rice called President Trump’s Executive Order, which restricts travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, “ill-considered and badly delivered.” Albright said the Executive Order is actually making us less safe and called it a “gift to ISIS.”
They also finished on a motivational note with advice to young women looking to advance in their careers. Rice advised that women need to be over prepared and twice as good as men. Albright reiterated her famous quote, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other,” saying that women have a way of projecting their weaknesses onto other women, calling on all women to come together during this dangerous and tumultuous time in history.