Rule Breakers

Maria Shriver’s Secret To Self-Advocacy

The longtime journalist talks to Bustle about championing yourself, whether in the doctor’s office or from the governor’s mansion.

Maria Shriver talks to Bustle about the gender bias in medical research and how to be a self advocat...

Last month, Maria Shriver stood in the Oval Office and accepted a pen from President Biden, which he’d just used to sign an executive order to invest in women’s health research. It was a goosebumps-inducing moment, in part because it closely echoed a similar occasion from 1963, when Shriver’s mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, was handed a pen by her brother, President John F. Kennedy, who’d just signed a bill supporting children and mental health into law.

But then again, Shriver is accustomed to being an eyewitness to history. Her mother founded the Special Olympics; her father, Robert “Sargent” Shriver, was a vice presidential nominee and U.S. ambassador to France. Their influence on her is palpable.

“I was raised by a woman who wanted to empower me, in a field of all men — starting with my home, I had four brothers — to go out and tackle the world,” Shriver, who’s 68, tells Bustle.

So she did, becoming an Emmy- and Peabody-award-winning reporter, special anchor for NBC News, and a bestselling author several times over. But when she became first lady of California at age 48, she reluctantly agreed to take an extended leave of absence from NBC to avoid speculation about a potential conflict of interest.

Going slowly doesn’t mean you won’t be able to achieve what you want. Life is a marathon, and going slowly through it is a gift.

After decades of putting others first, she’s now throwing her considerable clout behind a White House initiative that aims to pour $12 billion into women’s health research. While it still requires additional congressional funding, the intention of the effort is to balance the scales of medical science, since many of the diseases that predominantly impact women, and the majority of medications taken by everyone, have only been studied in men.

“Look, I’m a mother of two young men, so it’s not that I just want to focus on women. I also want to empower my sons. I don’t think you do one at the expense of another,” says Shriver, who shares four kids and two grandchildren with ex-husband Arnold Schwarzenegger. “I want to focus on humanity, and I want to level the playing field when it comes to research.”

Below, she discusses her Kennedy upbringing, a recent career resurgence, and why she’s “a doctor’s worst nightmare.”

Shriver attends a Women’s History Month event at the White House in March 2024.Bloomberg/Bloomberg/Getty Images

You’ve done so much for women at every phase of your life. Why focus on health research equity now?

It’s the right issue hitting the right president at the right moment, but it’s been a culmination of my lifetime of work. My reporting, my advocacy, my activism, my storytelling, my political training, my political wherewithal. In a way, I've been in the “women’s empowerment space” my whole life. I went to an all-girls school, and saw my very empowered, passionate mother going to work. She had a briefcase. She wore pants. She smoked cigars. She was trying to change the world.

In your speech at the White House, you said that you watched your mother suffer with health problems for years, only to be repeatedly dismissed and disbelieved.

Even though she was a force of nature, when it came to her health, she gave doctors more power than she gave other people. She thought, as most people do, “Well, they know better.” And I found myself going, “No, they don’t. Why are they giving you that? I don’t think that’s the right thing.”

I started accompanying her [to appointments, and] took my journalism into the doctor’s office. “Do you know if this medication you’re about to give her conflicts with these other medications? Why are you giving that much anesthesia? Why is it this anesthesia and not that anesthesia?” I had a card with the list of medications she was on. Now I have a card in my wallet of the list of medications I’m on. I’m probably a doctor’s worst nightmare.

Shriver (right) with her mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver.Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images
With her mother, brothers, and father, Sargent Shriver.Darren McCollester/Getty Images News/Getty Images
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What types of questions do you typically ask now?

“Why are you giving me that? Has that been tested on a woman? Is that the same dose you’re giving my son? Why don’t you give me a different dose? I’m smaller. I don’t weigh the same as my son.”

We have to advocate for ourselves and those we love. I did this for my mother and father as their caregiver. I did this for my children. I did this for my ex-husband. So now I try to do it for myself.

You may not have medical expertise, but you are an expert when it comes to how you or your loved ones feel.

I keep a journal of, How am I feeling? What’s bothering me? What do I want to talk about? I go into the doctor’s office saying, “I’m struggling with my sleep. I feel tired when I wake up. I’ve kept a food journal. I’ve noticed this and that.”

I also don’t believe that the doctor is the be-all, end-all. They’re human. I go in understanding that they have a lot on their plate and that I’m a partner in my health care.

Going back to your children, how did you instill in them the importance of advocating for themselves?

I always tell my kids that they have to advocate for themselves. If they don’t feel heard, if they don’t feel believed, then they have to go find someone who does hear and believe them. And that’s not just in the doctor’s office. That’s in your relationship, your job, your home.

Shriver with her daughters, Christina and Katherine Schwarzenegger.Araya Doheny/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

This is personal as well as political for you.

When I became first lady, I really focused on women. I started traveling around the state, learning about what challenges women were facing. I became more aware of women as caregivers.

My dad had been newly diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, so I started investigating that, and saw how this disease disproportionately impacts women. Everybody [in the medical establishment] told me, “No, women aren’t more vulnerable to Alzheimer’s. It’s only because women live longer.” I spent a year-and-a-half reporting, and realized that in fact women are at the center of the Alzheimer’s story, but there’s no research that tells us why that is. I kept saying, “Well, we don’t know about Alzheimer’s, but do you know about MS? Do you know about autoimmune?” [Doctors at the NIH and elsewhere] were like, “No. No.” I’m like, “Why not?” They were like, “Well, we’ve never studied women. That’s the way it is.”

That led me to create the Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement, to create the first Women’s Alzheimer’s Prevention Center. It led me to my work at the Cleveland Clinic. And it led to more reporting on women’s health.

How did we get here?

Traditionally, women weren’t seen as equal citizens. They were seen as hysterical people who lost their minds once a month. They were seen as less important, less valued members of society, so they were not invested in, in the ways that men were.

I brought this to the White House, and I kept saying, “Does anybody see this? Why aren’t we changing this?” I told Dr. and President Biden, “We can change this. You can be historic.” They were like, “Let’s go. Tell us what we want to do, and we’ll take it.” So they did. They’ve allocated more money toward women’s health research than any other presidency in history.

Shriver with her mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver.Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images
Shriver with her brothers and parents at a Special Olympics benefit event. Doug Benc/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images
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You’ve written a lot about the difficulty of balancing being a professional person and a mother. No one can be in two places at once. I’d love to hear how you navigated that.

I just did the best I could. I knew my priority had to be my kids. So my career, which I had spent a lot of time building, definitely dropped down. I glimpsed the power of journalism during my dad’s 1972 campaign and saw how it moved people’s hearts and minds. I wanted to change the world with my storytelling. I had two anchor jobs in New York, which had taken me my whole life to get, but I realized I couldn’t continue to do them and raise my kids. So I quit so I could be home more.

Then I took a leave of absence when I became first lady, so my career kind of stopped altogether. I’d grown up in a political family, so I knew what it was like if there was no one home. I knew their dad was going to be unbelievably busy, so I had to switch to make sure they felt they were their [our] priority.

Now they’re adults and, remarkably to me, [my career is] in high gear again. I didn’t stress out that it had dropped down. I just recognized, OK, that’s the way it goes. But I always kept one foot in the door, and thought maybe when I was in my 60s, it could rev back up. And that’s what happened.

You wrote your book of advice for young women, And One More Thing Before You Go… nearly 20 years ago. If you could write an additional chapter today, what would you write about?

The importance of human connection. There is no substitute for that. In the long run, your happiness, your feeling of contentment, of being seen, is going to come from another human being. It’s going to come from taking a walk with someone. Sitting at a dinner table with someone. Having a coffee with someone. I would say to invest in human connection. And also understand that going slowly doesn’t mean you won’t be able to achieve what you want. Life is a marathon, and going slowly through it is a gift.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.