Protecting a woman’s right to shop

Being a woman in today’s world has many challenges: How can I keep my eye shadow from caking? What’s the most effective way to scrapbook? Will that new Go Girl energy drink totally blow my carb allowance?

Lucky for me, the first annual Sacramento Women’s Show provided the perfect opportunity to explore these important issues. Let Berkeley and San Francisco have Girl Fest Bay Area, where women met last weekend to discuss fair-trade practices, legal protection for sex workers and the struggle to protect women’s reproductive rights—in between concerts and films by independent women artists. Why travel all that way when Sacramento had its own celebration of sisterhood on the very same weekend?

I arrived at the Sacramento Convention Center on the second day of the Women’s Show. For $7, I was granted admission to a cavernous hall filled with rows of vendor booths. I hadn’t really planned on shopping, so I walked past them quickly, scouting about for seminars, workshops and other activities. It took about two minutes to ascertain that nothing else was happening; I had just paid $7 for the opportunity to shop.

Granted, there was an empty “seminar stage” in one corner of the hall, but the posted schedule listed only extended marketing presentations by the vendors. For example, a company called Nature Rich was offering a lecture called “What are Nature Rich foods?” Before that, a Tupperware representative was scheduled to explain how to cook a whole chicken in 25 minutes in a microwave using (what else?) Tupperware.

I decided to give the booths another chance. Perhaps there were some educational materials or exhibits by local artists. At the very least, there might be some free swag to offset the admission price.

Most of the roughly 100 booths fell into one of four categories: cosmetics, fashion accessories, kitchen supplies and at-home businesses. PartyLite, The Body Shop at Home, Avon and Mary Kay all were recruiting—the only evidence of the “education and career opportunities” advertised on the show’s promotional materials. The promised car-care tips went as far as advising women to buy Hyundai’s newest models, by parking them on the convention floor. As for the flier’s “increasing business efficiency with Staples” program, well, the Staples booth was giving out free mini-staplers (a marked improvement on efficiency, compared with holding papers together with one’s teeth).

As I wandered the aisles, dodging exhortations to sample moisturizers or give away my contact info for various raffles, I grew increasingly resentful of the concentrated sales pitch into which I’d wandered. Almost every booth had a bowl of chocolate candies on display, to lure women toward the merchandise. I began snatching candy from every bowl I passed, dropping it into my purse and walking away before the salespeople could begin their spiels. I don’t know what I was thinking—that I’d donate the candy to Women Escaping a Violent Environment for the benefit of womankind? I just wanted to take something back from this event that promised to help women organize their lives and offered only a marathon of infomercials.

This month, South Dakota banned abortion, Chile elected its first woman president, and Candace Parker became the first woman to slam-dunk in a National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament. Social conservatives in the Bush administration are trying to block the availability of a new cervical-cancer vaccine on the grounds that it will encourage promiscuity, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that women still make 78 cents for every $1 men earn at the same jobs. Those are women’s issues.

Every day, Sacramento’s women struggle to find the right words for poems to express their rage, for songs to express their joy, for letters to educate their legislative representatives and for compliments to build their daughters’ self-esteem. Any event that cloaks itself in our name has a responsibility to offer more than a portable shopping mall that reduces women’s issues to the choice between Avon and Mary Kay.