What if the women stop spending?

07/31/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

I've just returned from the 4th annual BlogHer conference, at which well over a thousand women from all over this country-- smart, influential, motivated and talkative but basically normal women-- got lavished with sponsors' freebies. GM let several women drive to the Conference in shiny new hybrids. I alone got a couple hundred dollars worth of household stuff. The best was that we got free boxes of "Merci" chocolates. I took home four of them. Retail value: $36. Apparently, I am very, very valuable to the Fortune 500. But valuing women primarily as consumers is the tail wagging the dog.

Yesterday's New York Times noted:

"For the first time since the women's movement came to life, an economic recovery has come and gone, and the percentage of women at work has fallen, not risen, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. Each of the seven previous recoveries since 1960 ended with a greater percentage of women at work than when it began.

"When economists first started noticing this trend two or three years ago, many suggested that the pullback from paid employment was a matter of the women themselves deciding to stay home -- to raise children or because their husbands were doing well or because, more than men, they felt committed to running their households."

And buying lots and lots of stuff, apparently.

Writing today of the gender gap in economic prosperity (men have more of it, but less and less each day), Marie Wilson notes that white women still earn 77 cents on every man's dollar (African American and Latina women earn less) and occupy few positions of corporate leadership. In her 2005 study Sylvia Ann Hewlett found 37% of women with graduate degrees or college degrees with honors took extended breaks from work, when they wanted to find work again, only 40% regained full-time employment.

Wilson writes

"Given the straits we now find ourselves in, perhaps the time has come when men and women can finally share equally in achieving one important goal: repairing our broken economy.

"As I have noted in the past, other countries have far surpassed us in recognizing women's worth in the realm of business -- and their appreciation of women's business savvy has been rewarded in their bottom lines. We sorely need to learn these lessons, and learn them quick, before we plummet even further down this economic downward spiral."

Well, I think American companies' bottom lines have been amply rewarded by recognizing women's worth...as purchasers. From Home Depot to the (now suddenly empty) local mall, women had a big part in driving our sweet economic times. Unfortunately, we already put a lot of it on credit, and if we're losing more jobs than ever, those cards will be flashed less and less.

So why is it that women, especially mothers, are so valued as consumers but not at work? If the American people are coached to be spenders--President Bush was so upset when we didn't use our tax refunds to buy new stuff--then women are the spenders in chief. And this makes us valuable. Women control 83 cents of every household dollar spent.

So, the Government wants us to spend, and companies want us to buy, but sometimes I worry they don't want us to earn. And this is counter-productive, because if we earn less then (hopefully) we spend less.

Valuing women primarily as consumers is the tail wagging the dog. If our Government and our corporations don't start recognizing women's value as workers as well as spenders, we're in for tough times indeed.