Only When I Laugh
by Elouise Bell
[p.58]The subject I want to bring before the sisterhood today is not a major issue such as equal pay for equal work or the right to have credit cards in our names. It is, admittedly, a smaller matter, but one with considerable significance in the long history of our upward climb towards justice. It deals with precisely where we are going to put that equal pay and those credit cards when we get them. In a word: Pockets.
Pockets may well be among the most liberating of humankind’s inventions.
Just contrast the actions of a man and a woman writing a check—a small task repeated many times in the course of a month in our modem society. The man lightly lifts the lapel of his suit jacket a couple of inches away from his body, plucks from his handy inside pocket both checkbook and pen, and writes his draft. The whole transaction is a model of elegance, grace, and ease.
What happens to a woman who needs to write a check? To begin with, the check is in her handbag. Thus, she must find a [p.59]place to rest her bag while she opens it—unless she has become adept at the one-handed zipper trick. She could also try to balance her handbag on her bosom, but depending on the size of both, she’ll have minimal to zero luck with that maneuver. (Take my word for it.) Once the purse is open, she has to locate the checkbook or wallet-checkbook combination. She will pull out her appointment book (which is the same color), her address book, and her memo pad before dredging up the checkbook itself. Even then, her problems are not over. Does she leave the handbag open while writing the check? Well, why zip four times instead of twice? On the other hand, while she turns aside to write out “fifty-four and 32/100,” someone may help himself to her Cross pen or other goodies lying unprotected in the gaping purse. And even if that possibility seems remote, does she really want others waiting at the check-out counter to be treated to the sight of the full panoply within? On the other hand, if she’s getting change back from the check, she’ll have to have access to her coin purse or the billfold section … What she usually ends up doing is jamming everything—checkbook, pen, bills, receipt and loose change—back in a wad, grabbing her groceries, and leaving with the handbag still yawning open and dribbling its contents as she goes.
’Tain’t funny, McGee. Yet women’s unliberated plight in this respect has long been the source of male jokes. The size and contents of handbags and abundance of other pieces of luggage that women traditionally carried evoked many guffaws and cartoon put-downs during the Victorian era—and the laughter goes on. In earlier stage and movie comedies, at least one woman would show up on the scene laden with huge handbag, needlework bag, parasol or umbrella, hat-bag, and shawl—not to mention shopping bundles. Often she would be trying to get in or out of a door, on or off a bus or tram. And if she were traveling on a train, easily a dozen other pieces would be added.
At a women’s history conference in Minnesota I heard a fine paper analyzing the various items advertised as “women’s luggage” in the Sears Roebuck catalog of 1910. More than fifty separate kinds of baggage were included, each with a distinct and different purpose, most of them unknown to us today, thanks be for small favors. The point is that even when travelling, women were and still are to a lesser degree laden with the [p.60]trappings assigned to the keeper of the goods. The nineteenth-century woman was everywhere encumbered, anchored, and burdened. Women of our century are not out from under yet.
The answer to less burdensome handbags is, in part, pockets. Why do women not have pockets, and why should we want them? We want them because they are freeing. They free the hands, enabling us to stride through the world unfettered. With both hands free, we can pull open a heavy door with some grace and ease, instead of going through a vaudeville routine. We can grab a railing or swing onto a bus. We can catch ourselves more easily if we stumble; we can shake hands or embrace someone without a juggling act. Obviously the arms are meant to swing free as the human being walks, so as to provide grace and balance. What a fifteen-pound handbag does to that balance we all know too well.
Yes, we do need to throw out a good bit of what makes up those fifteen pounds. But then we need to have a few handy pockets for the rest. Without them, we earn an undeserved name for carelessness. For example, whenever I leave my office (which I do a dozen times a day), I lock it. Thus I must carry my keys. I usually carry a pen, because writing notes and memos and signatures, etc., is a continual part of my work. I often carry a couple of small pieces of memo paper. Now when I wear a suit jacket with pockets, these little items slip into a convenient repository and await my need. Few of my clothes have pockets, however. So I usually carry everything in my hand. (I refuse to walk around the corridors of my building carrying a purse.) When I use my hands, as I quite often do, I must put these items down some place. Then, if I become engaged in what I’m doing, if someone involves me in a conversation, if I start thinking about the next matter at hand—I return to the office minus keys, or the pen, or the notes. I am tired of looking for my keys! I am tired of putting down a good pen and then, when I miss it, spending twenty minutes hunting for it. I am tired of not having small change on me when I need it. I want equal pockets!
Now why do we not have pockets? Well, some would say that pockets, especially pockets that are used, bulge out and spoil the line of a skirt or dress. (The word “pocket” traces back to a Proto-Indo-European root referring to a whole range of items that could swell or be swollen.) But I wonder. I think having [p.61]usable pockets, and especially putting one’s hands in one’s pockets, belongs to a category of behaviors, like whistling and sitting with legs outstretched—that society has labeled as “too casual” for women. Remember Jo in Little Women? When she would put her hands in her pockets and whistle, she scandalized her more “proper” sisters. But notice that whistling and pocketing her hands were natural, comfortable behaviors for Jo—she had to be brain-washed into the concept that they were “unladylike.”
I wonder if putting one’s hands in one’s pockets may not be a subtle but clearly understood gesture of independence and cool detachment, the opposite of the over-burdened Victorian woman struggling to board the tram and rendered very nearly helpless with all her paraphernalia. No wonder men leaped to open doors for her! Walking unencumbered, with hands either free or comfortably in pockets, constitutes body language that society has traditionally considered “too cocky” for women. It is revealing to think a while about why casual, independent, or confident behavior was considered inappropriate.
Happily, involvement in active sports and outdoor activities have taught women in the past decades to value strenuous movement, comfortable clothes (shoes in particular), and confidence. And pockets. A visual stroll through the L. L. Bean catalog shows some of the handy places pockets turn up: in boots (knife pocket), in the back of windbreakers, at knee level in fisherman’s pants and in overalls—well, you get the idea. Do you think we could push manufacturers on the subject? Working pockets for working women, or some rallying cry like that? I say working pockets because I’ve had too many close encounters with ornamental pockets that immediately fall to pieces from overuse—like holding a Kleenex or a paper clip.
Oh, and before anyone reminds me—I know that some men are now carrying purses, although of course their tongues would rot in their mouths before they called them purses. All I can say is that they’re welcome to ’em!