Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Book journal: Handbagging and women public speakers

As I continue to work on my book on women and public speaking, I'm sharing my "book journal" with you, a way of thinking out loud about the themes I'm coming across in my notes and research. What do handbags have to do with public speaking? More than you might imagine. For the women speakers who carry them, they can be portable offices, a place to stash notes and quotes.

But handbags also are a visible reminder that you're different, an "other," compared to men. You get the appearance of carrying something, which some can see as a subservient look, yet others claim to use them as "armor" and "weapons." We project our views about women speakers on their handbags, characterizing them as bossy, meek or concerned with fashion. Like other appearance issues, coverage of women politicians' handbags and appearance can create very real setbacks. What a mixed bag! Here are some of the articles and issues arising in my research:
  • The speaker's accessory, part one: Handbags and purses weren't necessary when women didn't control their own money, as was the case for centuries. So when American suffragist Susan B. Anthony began regular public speaking in the latter half of the 1800s to advance the cause of voting for women, her alligator bag held speeches--a necessity for a woman who gave an average of 75 to 100 speeches per year, a remarkable schedule of speeches during a time when most women were discouraged from the practice.  Read our Famous Speech Friday post about Anthony's "Is it a crime for a U.S. citizen to vote?" speech. Some say Anthony was saluted--or called out for ridicule--in a jump-rope rhyme that mentioned a lady with an alligator purse. 
  • Handbagging as a not-nice verb: Anthony's handbag was noticed because it was unusual. UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's handbags also were a novelty, but for a different reason: They served as a visible sign that a woman was in charge for the first time. Her cabinet (and other male officials and reporters) called out her ubiquitous handbags as a weapon in meetings, using "handbagging" and "handbagged" as verbs. Some said the term stemmed from her practice of putting the handbag on the conference table and digging through it for a note, something that would undermine the male being "handbagged." The BBC notes that Thatcher's handbag's "fame even reached the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, which defines the verb 'to handbag' as: (of a woman politician), treat (a person, idea etc) ruthlessly or insensitively." After her death, some of the "handbagged" men in question defended the term as not being misogynist. Let's agree it wasn't a compliment, either, shall we?
  • The speaker's accessory, part two: When men aren't doing the observing of Thatcher's handbag-
    as-weapon, a different picture emerges of a prepared speaker. In preparing to play Thatcher in the film "The Iron Lady," actress Meryl "Streep researched her part carefully enough to learn even what Mrs. Thatcher carried in her handbag: 3-by-5 cards with adages by Kipling, Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln and Disraeli." In this BBC Woman's Hour podcast about Thatcher's handbags, it is noted that the luxury of pulling out your notes was not extended to cabinet members or others in the room, who were expected to have answers on the tips of their tongues.
  • Handbagged or hamstrung? Many women leaders today hand their purses to an aide to avoid getting photographed with them, a far cry from Thatcher's approach. But the news media keep putting the spotlight back on the bags. The New York Times published in 2013 an article noting the historic number of women in the United States Senate and along with them, "a historic number of handbags." (Our paper of record, indeed.) In The real problem with writing about a Senator's purse, it's noted again how coverage of women politicians' appearance, especially their wardrobes, has a negative effect on their ability to win elections. From the article: “I’ve been standing next to the reporters who ask questions like, ‘Tell me about your favorite handbag, senator,’ and usually the woman is trying to avoid answering the question or trying to hide their annoyance at being asked because they don’t want to come off like a bitch,” [pollster Celinda] Lake says. “I don’t know any congresswoman who wants to talk about her handbag instead of her economic plan. I’ve never heard a woman politician spontaneously say to a reporter, ‘Let me tell you about my bag'.” Thirty years earlier, Thatcher was an exception to this, saying, "Of course, I am obstinate in defending our liberties and our law. That is why I carry a big handbag." No word on whether a male speechwriter or adviser put those words in her mouth.
  • Signature and language in a bag? Thatcher's purses were not only covered relentlessly, but have been the subject of a play called "Handbagged" and gained attention when it was announced that a statue of her would include her handbag. Fashion critic Robin Givhan describes the language of the Thatcher handbags, noting that, like the Prime Minister herself, they were "conservative, intimidating, feminine." She suggests:
  • This personal carry-all has long been both functional and symbolic. Depending on its style and brand, it can be a statement of status or a pronouncement of folksiness. Hand it off to a hen-pecked husband or a put-upon assistant and it can demean or belittle. A purse can impress and intimidate, bewilder, berate, or amuse....those bags instilled fear in colleagues and combatants alike. What was lurking inside them? What might she pull out: incriminating papers, devastating notes, embarrassing memorabilia? For men, the handbag is a vast, vaguely terrifying mystery. What personal unmentionables lie within?
  • Powerful with a purse--or without it? Of course, that perspective's from the fashion industry, which makes a profit on the handbag--and which inspired "The Devil Wears Prada" film in which Meryl Streep famously dumps her designer handbags on her assistant's desk every morning, day after day. Givhan shares that Anna Wintour, the Vogue editor on whom the role was said to be based, herself does not carry a handbag, saying, "Handbags weigh you down." "There's power in her surprising refusal," says Givhan. Unhand that bag...
(Creative Commons licensed photo from diongillard's stream on Flickr)