When we think of handbags or purses, there is little escape from the generalization that they have a feminine connotation. Of course, as handbag history mavens, WE understand that not only have handbags been around for centuries, but they were also primarily utilized by men. Much more utilitarian than fashion-forward, they ranged from pouches for coins to rifle bags such as bandoliers. However, the purse is still today seen as an accessory for a woman. But what role does the handbag take on when it’s utilized as a symbol of autonomy and even as a symbol of power in the modern era?
“Every woman should have a purse of her own” claimed Susan B. Anthony. For her, a purse meant independence and ownership. From speeches to land deeds, her doctor’s-style crocodile bag not only held her possessions, but also her rights to those possessions. Progressing from the early 20th century US to the 1980’s UK, the purse again became a beacon of strength and leadership with “The Iron Lady,” Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
”Like Joseph Chamberlain’s umbrella and Winston Churchill’s cigar, Thatcher’s physical and metaphorical prop was her handbag. In 1982, one Conservative politician noted, ‘She cannot see an institution without hitting it with her handbag.’ The term ‘handbagging’ was used so often in reference to Thatcher’s abrasive style that the word entered the Oxford English Dictionary” (Carter).
Not only did it hold her belongings, Thatcher’s iconic Launer handbag (the same beloved maker Queen Elizabeth carries), wielded its own power alongside Thatcher herself. Her streamlined handbag was a more feminine take on the briefcase carried by her male counterparts, yes, but that same feminine quality only emboldened its “authority.” The bag had a place on Thatcher’s arm as well as the negotiation table. Like Anthony, Thatcher kept her important documents close at hand, ready to be unveiled at the opportune time. And despite the handbag’s constant appearance alongside Thatcher, its contents were just as unfamiliar to her cabinet and rivals as most women’s handbags seem to be. Sitting on the meeting table, silently making its presence known, Thatcher’s handbag took a feminine accessory and made it authoritative and essential, like the briefcase for the businessman.