Doing Gender with Wallets and Purses

Cross-posted at Sociological Images

I once heard a transgender woman give a talk about the process of socially transitioning to being recognized as a woman. She discussed various decisions she made in taking some final critical steps toward the social identity of woman.  She talked at length about her hair. She asked, “What kind of woman am I and how is my haircut going to indicate that?”  She talked about being preoccupied with her hair for a long time as she attempted to figure out a cut and style that “felt right.” But what struck me the most was her discussion of carrying a purse.  She said that getting used to carrying a purse everywhere was one of the more challenging elements of the transition.  If asked what I thought would be a significant everyday challenge if I were a woman, I don’t think purse would have been high on my list.  But, it was high on hers.  She discussed remembering to bring it, how to carry it, norms surrounding purse protection in public, but also more intimate details like: what belongs in a purse?

Purses and wallets are gendered spaces.  There’s nothing inherent in men’s and women’s constitutions that naturally recommends carrying money and belongings in different containers.  Like the use of urinals in men’s restrooms, wallets and purses are a way of producing understandings of gender difference rather than as a natural consequence of differences.

Nippert-EngI got the idea for this post after reading Christena Nippert-Eng’s book, Islands of Privacy—a sociological study of privacy in everyday life.  One chapter deals specifically with wallets and purses.  In it, Nippert-Eng discusses one way she interviewed her participants about privacy.  She used participants’ wallets and purses as a means of getting them to think more critically about privacy.  Participants were asked to empty the contents of their wallets and purses and to form two piles with the contents: “more private” and “more public.”  As they sifted through the contents of their wallets and purses, they talked about why they carried what they carried as well as how and why they thought about it as public or private.

After collecting responses, she documented all of the contents and created categories and distinctions between objects based on how people thought about them as public or private.  One question that was clearly related to privacy was whether the objects were personally meaningful to the participant.  Invariably, objects defined as more personally meaningful were also considered more private.  Screen shot 2014-11-18 at 9.58.07 AMAnother question that routinely arose as participants made sense of the objects they carry around everyday was how damaging it might be for participants if a specific object was taken.  Based on this findings, she creates a useful table delineating participants concerns surrounding and understandings of the objects they carry with them (see left).

Just for clarification, there’s sort of a sliding scale of privacy going from most to least private as one proceeds from the bottom left cell to the top right cell.  Thus, items classified by participants in the lower left cell (1) are the most private objects.  Here, participants identified things like prescription medications, letters from friends, and a variety of personally meaningful objects that were thought of as completely private and carried only for the self.  Other items were still considered private, but “less private” than objects in cell 1 because they were shared selectively.  Consider cell 2.  While bank cards, memberships, credit cards and money were all classified as “private,” individual’s also thought of them as “more public” than object in cell 1 because they were required to share these objects with institutions throughout their lives.  Similarly, some objects were thought of as “private,” but were also carried to share with certain others, such as photographs of children (cell 4).  Finally, items classified in the top right cell (3) are the most public objects in wallets and purses—carried for the self and, potentially, “anyone” else.  Items here include things like tissues, lip balm, money classified as “extra,” gum, breath mints, etc.

Objects from most of the cells exist in both wallets and purses, but not all of them.  The contents of cell 3 (containing the “most public” objects in wallets and purses) are inequitably distributed between wallets and purses.  As Nippert-Eng writes, “This is the one category of objects that is overwhelmingly absent for participants who carry only wallets, yet universally present for those who carry purses” (here: 130).  She also found that some of her participants only carried objects all fitting the same cell in the above table.  These participants—universally “wallet carriers” in her sample—carry only objects necessary for institutional transactions (cell 2).

This is, I believe, a wonderful analysis of one of the more subtle ways in which gender is accomplished in daily life. Certain objects are simply more likely to be carried in purses.  Interestingly, this class of “feminine” objects are also objects that play a critical role in social interactions.  Indeed, many of us are able to travel without these objects because we can “count on” purse-carriers as having them.  Things like packs of gum, tissues, breath mints and more might seem like inconsequential objects.  But, they play a crucial role in social interactions, and many of us count on purse-carriers to provide us with these objects when we are “in need.”  It’s an aspect of care work by which some (those carrying purses) care for others (those without purses).  And if they’re any good at it, the caring goes virtually unacknowledged, though potentially highly acknowledged when these objects are absent in purses.  Children routinely ask their mothers for objects they presume they’ll be carrying in their purses.  Indeed, these objects may be carried in anticipation of such requests.  It’s a small aspect of doing gender, but a significant element of social interactions and life.

When I was learning about interviewing and ethnography, I was told to always carry a pack of gum, a pack of cigarettes (something “lite”), and a lighter.  My professor told me, “It opens people up.  It’s a small gesture that comforts people–puts them at ease.”  These are the ways you might want people to feel if you’re asking them to “open up” for you.  I still remember my first foray into “the field.”  I bought my gum and cigarettes (objects I don’t typically carry) and the first thought I had was, “Where the heck am I going to keep these things?”  What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was asking an intensely gendered question.

10 thoughts on “Doing Gender with Wallets and Purses

  1. While interesting, I think the conclusion is all wrong. What people carry *in* their containers is not defined by gender role, but by what *fits* in there. Chapstick, tissues, gum and the like just don’t *fit* in a wallet. Which *kind* of container, wallet or purse, a person carries is, of course, very much defined by gender role. But what goes in there is mostly dictated by what fits in there and what needs to go in there. ID, money, credit cards are things everyone needs, regardless of gender. And in the case of wallets, there’s just not much else that will fit in there. Sadly.

    • I think the choice of whether to carry a wallet or a purse is defined (at least partially) by the objects one considers necessary. Most men I know don’t seem to find it necessary to carry tissues with them; many women I know do consider it necessary. As a woman, I have often wished to carry only a wallet, not a purse, and haven’t been able to bring myself to do it because I “need” my tissues and cough drops and so forth. (And because women’s pockets are not designed with wallets in mind.) Both the container and the objects are gendered, at least in terms of who carries them, though perhaps not in terms of who actually wants or needs them.

    • the fact that men carry small wallets and not purses isn’t some kind of preexisting law of nature, at some point people decided what containers we’re both allowed and mandated to carry based on the expectations surrounding each gender. if women didn’t feel pressure to carry around cough drops they would ditch the often expensive easily-lost-or-stolen hassle of purses, if men felt they needed space for tissues they would adopt a container that accommodated them.

      in my own life i’ve experienced significant pressure to get a purse even though i don’t need one, family members sometimes get frighteningly angry about it without being able to express any reason why. i don’t have any specific evidence to back it up but i imagine that carrying a purse as a masculine-assigned person would be considered demeaning at best and at worst result in violence.
      it’s not a coincidence that our purse/wallet preferences fall so devicively along the lines of assigned gender

  2. Emily brings up a good point about pockets in women’s clothing. Most skirts/dress don’t have them and my jean pockets seem more for show than function. There is no way I could put my wallet, let alone smart phone, in them. This “forces” me the carry a purse, which consequentially ends up with me filling it with crap I don’t really need but is nice to have.

  3. Interesting — I’m a woman and purse-averse. I carry my late brother’s wallet, which is deeply sentimental to me but which is the container, not the contained. Phone, chapstick, keys go in pockets — if I’m in the city for work I’ll carry a computer bag but I’m just not a purse kind of gal. It probably helps that I live in a rural area, and work at home, so I don’t need to carry a bunch of stuff around with me all day — if I’m going to the store, I can put wallet/phone/keys in my pockets (or in my reusable shopping bag). Also, there’s not a lot of social pressure around here to be “girly” like that …

  4. I consider the study to be flawed. The cells are ordered the wrong way round. ‘Cash’ passes through many hands. It is not private at all. At the other extreme are the intensely personal, private items that one might carry. Medication, chapstick, tampons, sanitary towels, etc. This stuff isn’t ‘public’, and I certainly wouldn’t share most of this stuff.

    Wallets show higher status than purses. Sorry, but they do. There is rarely a place in a wallet for small change. Traditional women’s purses (UK style) have no space for banknotes or credit cards. Just coins. I am female and I carry a wallet. I carry my loose change, keys, tissues, gum and other personal items in my other pockets, which is exactly where a man carries them.

  5. I’m a man and carry a purse, because I don’t like having stuff in my pockets. Datebook (the paper kind, which still works best for me), keys, pens, phone, batteries (for phone and other items I use), flashlight, headphones, business cards, change, toothpaste and brush, floss, comb, and a billfold in there for money and credit cards. Maybe an apple or two.

  6. Anecdotally–I typically carry either a very tiny wallet or very tiny purse (size of a bulging wallet) and I have had several guys in romantic situations make pointed comments about their size. I chose the wallet because it actually fit in most of my tiny jeans pockets. It was from a fair trade store and was consequently not marketed at gender as much as at class/race/politics. But the purse is actually a marketed-at-women’s purse. What has been noteworthy to these guys (after follow up questions) is that I’ve been with them for long stretches of time with a very small amount of “luggage.” They’re used to girls just carrying a lot of stuff, and had sort of come to the assumption that girls relied on the many, mysterious things inside these large bags. For these particular guys, I think it’s seen as sort of “cool” that I can manage to ‘survive’ on so ‘little’ but it’s also interesting because of course they’re typically carrying even less. Additionally, while I appreciate the accidental ‘cool’ factor, I also think there’s a side of that which is really negative–the idea that behaving ‘male’ is so superior to behaving ‘female’ that it is even highly regarded for a female you are (heterosexually) having sex with.

  7. Pingback: Doing Gender with Wallets and Purses – The Unbearable Lightness of Gender

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