I just spent two days doing what I love: talking and brainstorming with other smart professionals about the financial needs of women.
So I was feeling good, able and willing to speak up where it matters and be a part of the changing conversation, as I drove northward today to do another thing I most like to do: be a caretaking gramma to my 2 ½ year old grandson. In short, I felt powerful and complete as a woman.
Deep in my contentment, I was just half-listening to the radio. But a woman’s voice in a radio ad caught my attention, mostly because it so perfectly captured my own thoughts. “I found myself so completely focused,” a woman is heard to say to a friend. “There was nothing I could not have.”
But the bubble of self-esteem quickly burst when the ad then revealed what the radio lady was so intensely focused on, what was giving her such a sense of power. It was shopping! The woman’s ultimate “in-the-zone” experience was nothing less than a trip to a big box store where she “could spend to win!”
Shopping … nothing less, but also nothing more. The ad offended and dismayed me in equal measure. Can it really be the case that women live to shop and consider an afternoon searching out bargains a “win”?
I’d love to blame the advertisers for their clueless insensitivity to the true mettle of women, but I have little doubt that they did their statistical homework on their listening audience. They knew what verbal buttons to push to get these ladies driving directly to the mall.
Don’t get me wrong – I like snagging a great pair of shoes at a deep discount just as much as anyone, and when I do, I tell people, though not on the radio. What bothers me is the implication that our financial power as women is defined by our shopping, and not by our other financial activities and decisions, such as how to make money, how to save or invest it, how to give it.
Women have been defined by cultural and economic history as the household spenders. In the 1950s, only one of three women worked, leaving the other two thirds to stay at home and care for kids and the house. The post-war economic boom made it possible for a family to live on one income, buy a home, and in many cases, have two cars – one usually a station wagon. In those days, most women were given money – they did not earn it – and their job was to allocate it responsibly for the needs of the household. In high schools, young women took “home economics” to learn how to sew clothes, cook nutritious meals, and develop a household budget.
But roll forward to today. It has become an economic necessity for most women to work, and perhaps as a result, far fewer of us sew or cook, at least not three squares a day. The household allowance has also gone by the wayside: with our own incomes and credit cards, no longer are we limited by the money we are given by a partner.
This is certainly progress and empowerment for women. But there may be a downside as well. “Spending” as a responsible female activity has subtly shifted into “shopping,” bringing along with it the sense of being recreational rather than necessary. It’s a sport, and damn if we are not good at it.
But we are, or can be, so good at so much more when it comes to using our financial resources. We are smarter than any “Save 50 percent” sign on a department store item, and know that there are no real savings until we have actually banked the discount. We understand that “winning” something that we never knew we wanted until we got to the store is really a loss of self-control and judgment.
In my opinion, it’s time for us women to go shopping … for some new messages about who we are as financial decision-makers.