Oprah Winfrey, Brie Larson Kick Off Women in the World Summit

Mike Coppola/Getty Images
Oprah Winfrey

The 10th annual summit began in New York City on Wednesday, with a host of prominent women discussing equal pay, oppression and more.

The 10th annual Women in the World Summit began in New York City on Wednesday with the help of Oprah Winfrey and Brie Larson.

"We live in a country that has somehow confused cruel with funny, serious with intelligent, attitude with belief, personal freedom with stockpiling assault weapons, and what is moral with what is legal," Winfrey, the evening's keynote speaker, told the crowd at Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater. "So it is time for women in the world to set the agenda. It's time for women to redefine the message. We need to make that message a positive one. Let's make it ambitious, and inclusive, and brimming with hope."

The three-day event — a series of speeches and panels launched by Tina Brown to highlight both women leaders and international issues — aims to answer the question, "Can women save the world?"

According to Winfrey, yes. What'll it take? Continuing to "rock the boat," joining forces and scrapping the rules.

"And then when the smoke clears and all the naysayers who said it couldn't be done settle down, we need to reinvent the game," she said. "I don't need to tell any of you that the game was not built on an even playing field. We prove ourselves, again and again and again, and we maintain a healthy skepticism, but we refuse to become cynical."

Winfrey delivered a number of inspirational soundbites, occasionally offering personal anecdotes — including one about talking to Nelson Mandela in his living room — and shout-outs to Stacey Abrams, Greta Gerwig, Marie Kondo and the 42 women who joined Congress in January.

"If I were a gambler, I sure would bet that those 42 new congresswomen have experience with issues that few congressmen have ever had to face. Let's see, let's start with the profound and abiding lack of equitable pay; ditto the lack of affordable childcare," Winfrey said. "There is the distinct possibility of being sexually assaulted in college or raped on a date. There are the bosses who believe that the female anatomy is theirs for the grabbing. There's the shocking abuse of women serving in our military. We could go on and on, and be here all night. But if this sort nonchalant brutality has wounded our spirit in any way, I'm here tonight to say that it has also galvanized our determination to live with greater depth, with greater tenacity and backbone."

Moving forward, Winfrey stressed the need to advocate for everything from reproductive freedom to protection for DREAMers: "We need to be the truth; we have to be the respect; we have to be the fierceness, the love we want to see. And when we do that, mark my words, a change is already coming."

Larson, interviewed by Vanity Fair editor Radhika Jones, was equally as passionate when discussing things like equal pay in the film industry.

"Money is actually something I'm very excited to talk about here, and I'm excited to talk about in general, because it's this thing that people think is super icky," Larson said. "And that's the trap. The trap is, they make you feel icky about it so you don't ask for what you deserve. Because you know what that number is on the inside."

Regarding her Captain Marvel salary, Larson gave a lot of the credit to the actresses who came before her. "Don't even do it for you," she said of women seeking equal pay. "Do it for the women who are going to come after you."

Though the superhero flick made Larson the Marvel Cinematic Universe's first leading woman, she was almost never afraid whether or not she'd deliver.

"I'm such an idiot, I didn't feel any pressure at all. I'm serious, I'm not making a joke. I spent a lot of time thinking about it before taking the role because I'm introverted, definitely introverted, and there's a cost to my job," she told the audience. "I went all in with it, and I don't feel pressure does anything for me. I don't think I need it, and don't think it was going to help me make my mark. I said I was going to lead with my heart the whole way, and not give up what I thought needed to be onscreen.”

Larson continued, "We put an unnecessary pressure on ourselves. I didn't feel the pressure because I understand film history. And I know that the film industry started with majority women; it started with women filmmakers. So this weird idea that women maybe can't open movies, or are not important to storytelling, or the female story is not high art, is bogus. And I don't want to for a second to buy into it."

Jones pointed out that Captain Marvel's continued success — the film is the first female-led superhero movie to cross the $1 billion mark at the global box office — also proves just how "bogus" those notions are.

"I'm very grateful to have helped break this glass ceiling of normalizing the concept that women can also make a billion dollars, because I don't know why that was so hard to comprehend in the first place," Larson said. "But, you know, if people needed this to be another reminder in this decade, then great. I'm here. I did it."

Larson just directed her first film, too. She described the experience of shooting Unicorn Store as "the most fun I've had."

"The film is quite joyful, so it was quite nice to take a break from the dramatic roles I've been churning out, I guess I'm a glutton for punishment," she said.

Throughout the evening, other events included "Saudi's War on Women," a look at Saudi Arabia's oppressive regime, along with one woman's plea for the country to release her imprisoned sister, activist Loujain Al-Hathloul.

"For the past month, Loujain and activists have faced trial. Their crimes? Activism against Saudi Arabia male guardianship laws," Lina Al-Hathloul said. "These are not crimes. They are the actions of a humanitarian with moral courage. And yet, outrageously, this trial is still going. As I stand before you tonight, my sister remains locked in a prison cell."

Manal Al-Sharif, an author and fellow activist, put said guardianship laws into simple terms: "I'm turning 40 this year and by law, I'm still a minor. My son, when he turns 18 this year, will become my legal guardian."

Over the next two days, Ashley Judd, Diane Von Furstenberg, Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Anna Wintour will be among those speaking at the summit.