Even on a night to celebrate empowerment, the edge in the room was unmistakable.

The shocking revelation this week that the U.S. Supreme Court is moving to overturn Roe v. Wade was evident not only in the words from honorees and presenters at Variety’s Power of Women, presented by Lifetime, but also in the defiant spirit in which they were delivered. The invitation-only event had the crowd of 350 attendees on their feet more than once to pay tribute to the activism and philanthropic passions of prominent female leaders.

Honoree Queen Latifah summed up the unsettled mood among millions of women now that the legal pillar that has ensured women in the U.S. have access to legal abortion since 1973 could fall, thanks to the new conservative majority on the nation’s high court.

“It is a very strange time for us,” Latifah observed. “There are a group of people who are trying to steal our power. Our power to decide what we want, for our bodies, for our families, for our future.”

The threat to a fundamental human right for women was highlighted early on in the opening remarks from Claudia Eller, Variety editor-in-chief, who welcomed attendees to the first in-person gathering for the New York edition of the Power of Women franchise since 2019.

“We are talking about a liberty that is now in grave jeopardy,” Eller said. “I implore all of us to join the fight for women and for choosing what we do with our own bodies. It’s imperative.”

Eller pointed to another major global concern of the moment, the war in Ukraine, as she introduced Yelyzaveta Posivnych, a 16-year-old student who fled to New York from her native country after the Russian invasion began in February. The earnest teenager introduced as Liza, who left behind family members in Lviv, urged the audience to support Ukraine in the face of unprecedented aggression from its larger neighbor.

“Ukrainians are ready to defend their land and their home to their last drop of blood,” Posivnych said. “Without help from the world, Ukraine wouldn’t have lasted this long.”

Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman was also on hand to open up the ceremony. Raisman’s journey from gold medalist to testifying in the sexual abuse prosecution of former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nasser in 2018 was chronicled in the 2021 Lifetime documentary “Aly Raisman: From Darkness to Light.”

The response to the documentart from sexual abuse survivors from all walks of life has been moving, Raisman said. “Never underestimate the power of your story and your voice.”

Honoree Amanda Seyfried put the spotlight on danger that women and girls face in war-torn areas by throwing her support behind INARA, an organization founded by Arwa Damon, a CNN correspondent based in Turkey, devoted to assisting with the mental and physical health needs of child refugees.

Like others, Seyfried noted the anger spurred by the Supreme Court news as something to channel into collective action. “There’s no better moment, not only to celebrate the power of us, but to use it,” she said. Seyfried’s kudo was presented by her longtime friend Sarah Silverman, who opened the presenter speeches with characteristic bluntness. “What a week for women it’s been,” Silverman said.

Latifah’s honor was presented by Lorraine Touissant, her co-star on the CBS drama series “The Equalizer,” which just earned a two-season pickup. Touissant noted that Latifah is not only the series star but also executive producer.

“Few women in this industry have as varied and lengthy a resume as Queen Latifah,” Touissant asserted. Latifah’s spotlight went to the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy. The charity focused on education is a tribute to her late mother, also a teacher. And Latifah echoed Seyfried in pushing the high-powered crowd to take a stand in turbulent times.

“There’s nothing grander than when we lock arms and decide that we’re going to do something,” Latifah said.

Variety Power of Women New York Class Photo 2022
L-R Topeka K. Sam, Drew Barrymore, Kim Cattrall, Camila Cabello, Queen Latifah, Amanda Seyfried.
George Chinsee for Variety

Honoree Drew Barrymore also wasn’t afraid to admit her long-standing anxiety during remarks that rambled at times, but were true to form for a personality who has grown up in the public eye, acting since she was in diapers.

“She’s a powerhouse, she’s a force, she is unlike anyone I’ve ever met,” Jimmy Fallon, Barrymore’s longtime friend and one-time co-star said in his introduction. Barrymore proved the truth of his words with rambling remarks that were as wacky as they were earnest.

Barrymore acknowledged that she didn’t prepare a speech in advance as she extolled the work of World Central Kitchen, the relief organization run by chef José Andrés, and her time working with United Nations-related children’s charities.

“I want to be scrappy. I want to be proactive,” she assured. “I can’t walk with the umbrella of depression.”

Honoree Camila Cabello used her spotlight to emphasize the importance of mental health and wellness, especially for youth, by launching the Healing Justice Project. Despite all her success in music and her budding acting career, the 25-year-old singer acknowledged battling debilitating self-doubt. The nonprofit organization is designed to support youth activists on the frontlines of racial and environmental justice efforts.

“I struggled with anxiety that at times felt crippling,” she said.

Billy Porter, who starred opposite Cabello in Amazon’s 2021 musical “Cinderella,” presented her award after telling the room of his first encounter with this “luminous woman.” In his short time knowing Cabello, Porter said he marveled that “someone so young is so present,” he said, adding, “And the children shall lead us.”

A charity close to home for New York’s entertainment industry was the focus for honoree Kim Cattrall. The Actors Fund was a vital lifeline for thespians during two-plus hard years of COVID.

Presenter Darren Star had more than a little fun with the buzz around Cattrall and her absence from the recent “Sex and the City” sequel for HBO Max, “And Just Like That.” Star framed his remarks as reading a letter to the actor from the Samantha Jones character she played for years in the original “Sex and the City” series and three subsequent movies. But in closing, he saluted Cattrall for having “represented the model of a powerful woman since the day we met.”

Cattrall brought a theatrical flair to her remarks, built around the theme of how she learned to embrace the simplicity of the word “No.”

“‘No’ helps you define yourself and your boundaries and your goals,” Cattrall said. “It can allow you to transition out of one chapter and believe there will be more exciting chapters to come.”

Topeka K. Sam, who was honored with the Social Impact Award presented by Google and journalist Tamron Hall, also picked up on the theme of learning to say “no” as she described her circuitous route to becoming an activist after being sentenced to federal prison for a drug offense. She later received a presidential pardon. Today, Sam’s Ladies of Hope Ministries nonprofit focuses on ending the over-incarceration of women of color. One of her missions is also to help women gain more tools for navigating their own lives.

“We empower them to say no. ‘No’ is a complete sentence,” Sam said.

Earlier in the evening, Dea Lawrence, Variety‘s Chief Operating Officer and Chief Marketing Officer, introduced a high-tech tool to help the crowd take a simple step toward the oft-stated goal of ensuring that women in business support other women in business, at all levels.

Lawrence directed attendees to a special QR code that offers a list of female-owned businesses in the New York area that can use the support of movers and shakers in media and entertainment.

“Now more than ever it is essential to advocate for women to hire women, to inspire women and to recognize the contributions that women are making to our society,” Lawrence said.

Thursday’s SRO gathering closed with final remarks from honoree Venus Williams, who was saluted by the actor who played her in the 2021 biopic “King Richard,” about the famous tennis family led by her father, Richard Williams.

Saniyya Sidney hailed her on-screen alter ego as “my hero” and declared it was a privilege “to walk her in Reebok pumps.”

Williams, who appeared via pre-recorded video, also has turned her attention to health care and mental wellness concerns. She cited the example set by the eldest of her five sisters, Yetunde Price, who was tragically murdered in 2003. In tribute to their lost sibling, the Yetunde Price Resource Center focuses on programs to promote community-wide healing and unity for youth who suffer tragic losses.

For Venus, it’s a matter of equity.

“Health and wellness isn’t something only some people deserve. It’s a human right,” she said. “One woman’s success is every woman’s success.”