Purses and wallets are gendered spaces. The first thing that comes to mind when thinking about handbags and gender might be that women carry them more often. More interesting, is to think about why that is, the role handbags play in the way we perform gender and what that means.
The first question of why women carry them can partly be answered by one single phenomenon: Women’s clothing has too small pockets to fit their belongings. For instance, smartphones have become so large that the average woman can hardly hold one properly when using it. Now, handbags are not an issue in and of themselves. So what if your belongings don’t fit when you can opt for a stylish bag to carry them? The handbag is becoming an accessory increasingly carried by other genders than women, perhaps for this exact reason.
However, it becomes problematic when the technology used in our phones is made in such a way that it’s expected that we carry the phone on our bodies. A good example is fall detection. Fall alert detectors can understand when a person suddenly falls by detecting abrupt changes in body movements. This is much less likely to work when carrying your phone in a handbag.
Furthermore, many male-to-female transitioning people have contributed with reflections on the social aspect of handbags: Getting used to carrying them, norms around protecting your handbag in public, and, what exactly to carry in it. A quick Google search gives you three billion, six hundred eighty million hits for “what’s in my bag?”. Clearly, people are interested in what others carry in their bags.
In a study, Christena Nippert-Eng asked participants to empty the contents of their wallets and purses. Participants were asked why they carried what they carried as well as how and why they thought of the items as public or private. Based on this, the researcher made four categories of items: Carried for oneself (e.g. prescriptions), carried for oneself and institutions (e.g. bank cards), carried for oneself and selected others e.g. (photographs) and carried for oneself and anyone else (e.g. tissues and change). Interestingly, this last category was almost exclusively carried by people with handbags, and not with wallets. It can be considered the most public category of items.
If you are a person who is menstruating, maybe you have been surprised to find that no one in the public bathroom had an extra tampon to spare. Indeed, many people don’t think about travelling with items like tissues, mints, change or tampons because we think that someone else is likely to have them if we would need them. Unconsciously, we rely on the care work of purse carriers to have us covered. For instance, children tend to ask their purse-carrying parents for objects they presume they’ll be carrying in their bags, such as a snack. Often these objects are carried in anticipation of such requests. It’s a small aspect of doing gender but reveals interesting things about how gendered practices like carrying handbags play into social interactions.