Amid shouts from photographers and a flurry of camera flashes a luminous Cate Blanchett stepped onto the red carpet at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival Jan. 26.

"Cate! Cate!" the photogs yelled, hoping to get a shot of her looking at their cameras, as the actress arched her back and smiled. "Cate by herself!" they barked when she tried to pose with Film Festival Executive Director Roger Durling or writer and producer Todd Haynes.

It was an aberrant Santa Barbara evening, with the rain whipping over the wet streets and the street lights barely denting the darkness. Minutes before Blanchett’s arrival, festival hands had feverishly worked to secure a printed photo backdrop that was haphazardly flapping in the wind. One worker took out his pocket knife and tried -neatly – to cut holes in the plastic to allow the wind a passageway. Another somewhat-discreetly duct taped the edges of the backdrop to a pillar as raindrops crept onto the red carpet that stretched under the awnings of State Street’s Arlington Theatre.

Despite the chaos of the night, Cate stood poised. She wore an emerald gown, white pumps and her blond locks tucked into a twist. While the photographers barked orders from their makeshift scaffoldings, she smiled knowingly, turning this way, then that.

The woman was working.

The woman, photographers noted, as she turned to the side and folded her hands in front of her – was pregnant.

The New York Post reported the news about Blanchett "strutting her bump" to the world the following day and quoted what the actress said about motherhood during her onstage interview with film reviewer Leonard Maltin.

"In a way, for me, having children has made me much more focused and less neurotic as an actor. You just don’t have the time to do what I previously thought was preparation but is just anxiety. It did take that neurosis away for me," Blanchett said.

A walking portrait of femininity and feminism, she was there – pregancy and all – to receive the festival’s highest honor, the Modern Master award, for her entire acting career. Especially highlighted during the ceremony were Blanchett’s performances in her two most recent roles: as Boy Dylan in I’m Not There and as the British queen in Elizabeth: The Golden Age.

In between photo ops on the red carpet, Blanchett told the Reporter about what it’s like to be one of the leading ladies in the entertainment industry.

"I’ve enjoyed it. Last year I was able to transgress gender boundaries, and the very idea of producers wanting to do that is exciting," she said, of her role playing a very convincing Bob Dylan.$newpage$

The mother of two, soon to be three, offered advice to young women who may be looking to pursue a life in the limelight.

"I think you need to trust your own intelligence," she said. "There are different kinds of intelligence, but I think having a strong emotional intelligence is really important. It’s very important to trust your instincts."

As the first woman ever to be given the Modern Master Award, Blanchett has paved new ground on the South Coast, but with the roles she has selected and the way she has interwoven her public and private life, she has help create a new image of a 21st century leader.

Local Leaders weigh in

Last year Nancy Pelosi became the nation’s first female Speaker of the House, and for the past several years, California has been one of the only states with two female senators.

In Ventura County, locals are also beginning to see new examples of women in leadership roles: in business, politics and community organizations. Last year, for example, Christy Weir became the city’s first woman mayor in 25 years. Likewise, Ventura County’s first-ever woman Chief Executive Officer, Marty Robinson, will take office this year.

Second District Supervisor Linda Parks, who served as the chair of the County Board of Supervisors in 2007, explained why the South Coast needs diversity in leadership positions.

"The benefit of having women in leadership roles is that elected leaders are representatives of the people, and at least half of them are female," Parks said. "Women bring something new to the table and have a different perspective that adds to decision making."

However, the former Thousand Oaks mayor said some work still needs to be done to level the decision-making field. In Thousand Oaks, she noted, the city council has more readily selected men than woman to serve as mayor.

"I think I have found, not just with me but with other women in leadership roles, too, is that sometimes it’s easier for our male counterparts to dismiss us," Parks said. "For example, in Thousand Oaks it has only been women who have been denied the chair of mayor. I think that, to me, sums it up."

"They’re just these old-school men. It’s just a kind of cultural thing, but they have more inclination to be dismissive of women’s perspectives. They’ll patiently listen to a city councilwoman when she makes a motion, but then they’ll vote against her motion."

"I think that is changing, and we are becoming more accepting of women in leadership roles."

Parks, who has been involved in local politics for almost 15 years, said she often views people’s reaction to women leaders as a reflection of their generation.

"I think that a lot of it maybe comes from a generation who were raised with their mothers at home, and so they don’t see women as having any other roles besides a mother," she said.

Park’s colleague, 3rd District Supervisor Kathy Long, is also a strong supporter of women assuming leadership roles. Long said Ventura County has a history of female leadership.

"I think our county has been pretty progressive in that respect," Long said.

In the mid-70s, the county’s Planning Committee became the first in the state to have a woman member, and at one time there were as many as five women serving on the committee, according to Long. The first women, two of them in fact, were elected to the Board of Supervisors in 1980, and there have been as many as four woman supervisors at the same time, Long said.

Now Long and Parks are the only two women on the five-member board.

As a charter member of the county’s National Women’s Political Caucus and during her three terms on the Board of Supervisors, Long said she has worked to broaden the political dialogue to include women and children’s issues. When she was diagnosed and treated for breast cancer, for example, she spoke openly about the experience.

However, Long said there are still times when she finds herself holding back emotion in order to appear more resolute.

"I do think when I find myself tearing up that I try to hold back so that I can try to control my emotions that I might more privately show.

"As a leader you have to show strength. You have to show confidence. You have to show ability in tough times to carry through with what has to be dealt with. It doesn’t mean that when you’re confronted with public toll, like on 9-11, that there aren’t sometimes tears, among women and men."

A precedent-setting president

Senator Hillary Clinton’s now-infamous emotional moment before a group of women at a New Hampshire diner Jan. 7 led to a media frenzy over whether Clinton was crumbling under the weight of the campaign or whether she had turned on the waterworks to appeal to voters. Reporters buzzed with questions about the misty-eyed moment, asking if it was a political ploy to improve ratings or an accidental slip-up that might damage ratings.

While the political pundits were weighing in, Clinton handily won New Hampshire and revived her campaign.

"When I watched the actual clip when this supposed crying happened, I actually didn’t see any crying and I thought, if she was a man I don’t think we would be using the word crying. With women we seem to be freer with this," said Dr. Adina Nack, an associate professor in the sociology department at Cal Lutheran University, who studies sexuality issues.

Nack said Hillary appears to be walking a tightrope between portraying herself as a competent leader and also as a woman.

"Women are in a Catch-22. If they’re not professional enough, they get called out for being too wishy-washy and emotional, but if they’re too masculine they say she’s a lesbian, a bitch.

"It was interesting how her popularity seemed to escalate when she showed more emotion because that is a trait we normally associate with femininity."

The professor said even in academia, particularly at the university level, she sees examples of more women in entry level positions, but far fewer in leadership positions.

In male-dominated professions, women are not on equal footing. Women are entering at lower payrolls and are less represented in higher-paying positions.

According to the U.S. Census taken in 2000, the most recent year available, the median income for women in Ventura County was $32,216, versus $45,310 for men. According to a 2002 census, 28.3 percent of firms are owned by women in Ventura County, as compared to 29.9 percent statewide.

"We start from a very young age creating these very stiff boxes about what it means to be male and female," Nack explained. "And then we penalize people for not fitting in to these boxes. We’ve got to stop this overemphasis on sex on a relevant factor. Ultimately, when it comes down to it the only thing what someone’s sex is relevant to is when you’re deciding who could conceive a child and who they could do that with.

"We’ve created this dichotomy that to be a woman is to be feminine and to be male is to be masculine."

A vogue idea

Last year the senator-turned-presidential-candidate was scheduled to appear on the pages of Vogue magazine, but Clinton backed out of the interview as her campaign was gaining momentum.

In this month’s editorial, Vogue Editor in Chief, Anna Wintour, described Clinton’s move as a blow to feminism.

"Imagine my amazement, then, when I learned that Hillary Clinton, our only female presidential hopeful, had decided to steer clear of our pages at this point in her campaign for fear of looking too feminine. The notion that a contemporary woman must look mannish in order to be taken seriously as a seeker of power is frankly dismaying. How has our culture come to this?" Wintour asks.

"How is it that The Washington Post recoils from the slightest hint of cleavage on a senator? This is America, not Saudi Arabia. It’s also 2008: Margaret Thatcher may have looked terrific in a blue power suit, but that was 20 years ago. I do think Americans have moved on from the power-suit mentality, which served as a bridge for a generation of women to reach boardrooms filled with men."

However, Nack supported Clinton’s decision to not appear in Vogue and said it could have made voters focus more on her appearance instead of more on her track record and policies.

"We overvalue women’s physical appearance. I think I’m applauding Hillary for not appearing in Vogue. I think sexiness should not be a factor in deciding who our next president should be. I’d like to think the American public is more substantial than that, than just picking candidates based on appearance."

Women’s business

Women business owners account for less than one-third of all business owners in Ventura County, according to census data.

At Amgen, for example, one of the county’s largest corporations, only men fill the eight executive management positions and only one woman sits on the 11-member board of directors. A spokeswoman said Amgen declined to comment on this story due to time constraints.

Joy Sakata, owner of Joy’s Chocolates and president of the Ventura chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners, said she encourages local businesswomen to become owners.

"We’re a resource for women business owners. We provide education and exposure that’s all based on collaboration and support. We try to be a single voice in the community and to keep up with national and local issues that affect business owners."

The nationwide group is campaigning against a Federal Business Association proposed law that would change the Set-Aside Program, a 1994 congressional mandate that at least 5 percent of all government contracts go to women business owners. Despite the law, Sakata said only 3 percent of contracts actually go to women-owned businesses, resulting in about $5 billion less to women business owners each year. The FBA’s proposed legislation would make the Set-Aside Program valid for only four of the governments more than 2,300 contracts, Sakata said.

Changing communities

Even women’s services clubs, like Soroptimist International, have experienced inequality, said Debbie Bills, president of Soroptimist’s Oxnard chapter.

"Soroptimist was founded in 1921, about the same time in history when men’s service clubs were being organized. Now here it is 80 some years later, we as a women’s organization, have grown to almost 100,000 members worldwide in 120 countries globally, and the name Soroptimist is still not a globally known name. It’s like, why do the men get all the attention and the women’s organizations that are just as important and do as much good, don’t get recognized?" said Bills, who owns the A Street Affair styling salon in Oxnard.

Local members of Soroptimists include a doctor, teacher, photographer, former accountant and several business owners, Bills said.

"For women that are embarking on their career, who want to get involved and be around businesswomen, this is a great organization for developing personal leadership."

Teaching equality

Ventura County schools are another place where women are slowly making strides. About 85 percent of education employees in the county are women, said Dr. Charles Weis, the county superintendent of schools.

"I think they do an excellent job not only as teachers, but as principals and supervisors," Weis said, noting that there are significantly more women teachers, especially for lower grades, and significantly less women principals and supervisors, as compared to the number of men in those roles.

"It just must have to do with who the school board selects, because there are many more capable women who could be superintendents."

Seven out of the county’s 20 superintendents are female, Weis said.

"Many times women aren’t given the opportunity to lead when they should be. Also, often when women have to take time to have children, it sets them back in their career.

A portrait of a modern woman

Having children hasn’t set Cate Blanchett’s career back, and if anything, it’s propelled it forward, as she told the audience at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, during her interview with Maltin.

As festival producers ran clips of Blanchett’s work, viewers saw the breadth of roles one woman is capable of mastering. A feminist queen (Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age). An androgynous pop music icon (I’m Not There). A hardworking suburban housewife (Bandits). A quirky, sexy movie star (The Aviator). An ethereal elf (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings).

"It’s a little daunting to me to think all those women are you and they’re all sitting here before me," Maltin said.

"Oh but they’re not," Blanchett joked, wryly.

Blanchett is, first and foremost, herself, when she sits for an interview and describes her performances. Because it’s one thing to play a public role, and its another entirely to let the role play you.

After the clip of Blanchett as Bob Dylan, Maltin recalled his experience watching the 2007 film.

"I forgot that you were a woman. I was watching this incarnation," he said.

"It was the sock in my undies," Blanchett said, as the crowd erupted in laughter.

Blanchett showed her femininity that night, as well as her feminist streak, but she showed more than that, too.

She showed her humanity.

When producer Todd Haynes presented her with the Modern Master Award, Blanchett gracefully shifted the spotlight to another actor. She honored the memory of one of her co-actors in I’m Not There, who tragically passed away earlier this month.

"I’d like to pay special tribute to Heath Ledger, who I think was an extraordinary actor and well on his way to being a master himself," Blanchett said.