11/29/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's the Economy -- And the Women Who Make it Tick -- Stupid

Women and children first -- first to get aid from gentlemen on a sinking ship, but also first to sink in a financial downturn.

It's no secret that the economy's tumble is making the work of "helping people" even more challenging. And even if you only have five bucks to spare it really is difficult to know where to put it; where will it have the strongest and most immediate impact? Who needs it most?

"Women," said Mary Morten, the Executive Director of the Chicago Foundation for Women. "When the economy turns down, everybody hurts, but women hurt even more. It's the big elephant in the room - women often are forced to make even more difficult choices when their economic security is at risk."

"In good times, if a woman is lucky enough to have a variety of things like safe housing, childcare, and access to other supports, that gives her the opportunity to compete for a job," Shelley A. Davis, the Foundation's Director of Programs told me on the day the stock market posted its greatest loss to date. "In bad times she's locked out of that market because there's no safety net in addition to there being even more competition for fewer jobs."

The ladies stewarding the Chicago Foundation for Women, which has been advocating for -- and awarding grants to -- small community organizations that empower women through expanded access to economic opportunity, freedom from violence and access to health feel for over 22 years, believe that being unaware of the effect the current downturn has on women is a sure path to not emerging from it as productively and quickly as possible.

"There's not a lot of attention on it -- women tend to become invisible," Shelley said. "People are so busy worrying about themselves that they aren't thinking about the financial well-being of the women who watch their kids, clean their offices or answer their phones."

"But we're all connected. What high-level executive -- male or female -- would be able to make it to 'the big meeting' if their nanny wasn't there for them? We all depend on each other," she said.

And many organizations depend on the Chicago Foundation for Women, not just for cash to do things like help women prevent and recover from financial abuse -- such as when a spouse doesn't give a woman access to any of her own or her family's money. C.F.W. also teaches community groups how to apply for grants and find themselves legal help. They train organizations that mentor young girls, teach self-advocacy, and help curb domestic violence.

Mary, who will make an impassioned plea for support at their upcoming Annual Luncheon, says that like most non-profits, the Chicago Foundation for Women is hurting from the economy and the money-soak of the longest presidential election cycle in history. But she has no doubt C.F.W. will rise to the year's challenges. "The need only becomes greater when times are tough," she said.

Yeah, that's the standard thing to say. But Mary, who likes to tell it as it is, reminded me to not ignore the dimension and impact of that need.

"When the people on the bottom hurt, the people at the top hurt," she said. "What's going on in this country is that there's a co-dependency on low-wage workers ... a lot of successful women ride to the top on the backs of domestic help. Bottom line, there are people who really benefit from this work who we can't let down."

If that shook you out of complacency and you'd like to help the C.F.W. do its work while schmoozing it up with other strong, successful women, buy a ticket to their Annual Luncheon. Acclaimed mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, star of the opera Margaret Garner, keynotes. Dance performances by Teatro Luna, too. Go to or 312/577-2801 for more info.