Several weeks ago I saw a young woman on the subway accidentally dump a full cup of iced coffee into the seat next to her. A large puddle rippled in the molded plastic divot, threatening to overflow at any moment. Panicked and helpless, the embarrassed woman gazed at her mess. She couldn’t disown it. And yet the two flimsy napkins she’d thrown into the pond did nothing to sop it up.
To the rescue came every single other female in the car. Digging into their bags, these women produced tissues and napkins, towels and wipes; one woman seemed to have a whole bathroom’s supply of paper towels with her. Meanwhile the men, each and every one, edged away from the scene of the disaster and sat looking uncomfortably at their phones. Working together, the women on the train turned the puddle of coffee into a mountain of coffee-soaked paper, which the spiller took with her, smiling, triumphant, when she disembarked at Wall Street.
The incident left me thinking about whose job it is to clean up spills, the literal and also the metaphorical ones: the uncomfortable incidents that arise at work or at home. Why does it seem like spill-cleaning is women’s work?
An evolutionary psychologist might have designed the coffee-spill experiment to prove once and for all that spill-cleaning is coded onto the X chromosome. A recent study by psychologists in Colorado and Texas showed that women are more prone to disgust and to displaying an aversion toward illness and lapses in hygiene than men are. Their explanation mirrored my thinking: Perhaps mothers rush to clean stuff up to protect their progeny from contaminants. Even women without children undergo a lifelong acculturation toward motherhood, which prompts us to carry rags and burp cloths in our bags. (Or maybe, as humans who menstruate, we simply learn early to be ever vigilant against accidents.)
A friend of mine, a women’s history professor, had a different idea. Women clean up because fashion allows it. She pointed to the size of women’s bags, which allow us — like sherpas or packhorses — to lug around the tool kits of servitude. A woman is expected to be prepared for every eventuality, and culture has formalized that expectation. Online, lists of necessities proliferate: 12, 14, 17, 19, 30 things a woman should keep in her purse. Almost all include tissues, breath mints, hand sanitizer, and tampons — but also “a condom, because this is her responsibility, too.” (A woman’s responsibility for everyone else’s spills extends to the most primal level.)
In ancient times purses were a male accessory because carrying money was a man’s job; for much of history, women didn’t need bags because they didn’t venture far from home. Tax-paying and, later, alms-giving and debt-settling made a necessity of the small pouches that men wore on strings close to their bodies, the precursors to the money belt. In the Middle Ages, women hung a few small precious objects from a girdle around their waists: a rosary, a pomander, a religious book. It wasn’t until the Renaissance that women’s massive skirts allowed them to cache the stuff they needed in large pockets that dangled beneath their clothes. By the 1700s they also had “work bags,” nominally for knitting or needlepoint but also called “everything bags” because they could contain, according to the Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion, a cornucopia of necessities: a fan, smelling salts, makeup, opera glasses.
Around the French Revolution, women’s silhouettes grew slimmer and bulging interior pockets were seen as an impediment to style. Instead, women were encouraged to carry their stuff in a small bag on a string called a “reticule.” The Rational Dress Society, founded in the 1890s, arose along with the burgeoning suffrage movement; its adherents argued that female independence could not be achieved in a tight-fitting, pocketless dress. True liberation required loose-fitting clothing that allowed freedom of movement — and pockets for keeping necessities close, including a revolver if necessary.
But fashion won, and near the end of the 19th century, when it became permissible for women to travel alone, luggage designers like Louis Vuitton began peddling large handbags for women, positioning their wares as a signal of female independence. With compartments and clasps, they promised privacy and exuded competence. Needless to say, such luxuries were only available to wealthy women who could afford to set sail on an ocean liner.
In the 1970s, the actress Jane Birkin was famous for carrying her stuff in an open-topped farm basket until an executive at Hermès named a bag after her. In a recent TV segment, Birkin digs through her eponymous tote. “Girls like to have masses of things in their handbag,” she says, charmingly, as she paws through the credit-card holders, extra pairs of glasses, lotion, and baubles. “Everything’s useful.”
But what’s independent about being so useful, so encumbered, as if every trip to the office were a trek on the Appalachian Trail? In my large tote, I always have makeup, magazines, tissues, and a wallet the size and weight of a brick. Usually I also carry my lunch, a Kind bar, an extra plastic bag in case I need to walk the dog, an extra fold-up tote in case I need to go to the grocery store, and sometimes also an umbrella, a sweater, yoga clothes, a water bottle, and an extra pair of shoes. Jane Birkin ultimately got tendinitis in her shoulder, perhaps the price for feeling she had to be prepared for every raindrop and spill. In Elle, Julia Felsenthal described how her “fancy fashion magazine editor handbag” messed up her upper back.
As the incident above indicates, men are walking around empty-handed, uncompelled to be useful. The male purse went out of fashion more than 300 years ago, when tight breeches prompted the invention of the slender wallet. (The “murse” made an attempted resurgence recently, but its rise was impeded by widespread derision.) And the handkerchief, once the male answer to everyday drips, has become extinct — the exact date of that extinction around 1984, when the New York Times declared defunct the “serious handkerchief, the kind you blow your nose in, or clean your glasses with or wipe off the lipstick with after a kiss from your aunt.” That same era saw the rise of the pocket square, the utterly ineffectual, decorative signifier of male power. Here is my handkerchief, the pocket square says, and here it will stay, pristine and mysteriously folded like an origami bird, causing all onlookers to marvel at the handiwork of my dry cleaner (or laundress).
This is, of course, a generalization. My husband travels to work each day with a martial-arts uniform and computer chargers, lunch, and snacks. He always has a microfiber towel, and as the kind of Midwesterner who would help a stranger push a stuck car out of the snow, would certainly have helped the woman who spilled her coffee. My father goes everywhere with a half a dozen canvas bags packed with reading material — the stuff he’s reading, the stuff he might want to read, the stuff he’s read but might want to read again.
He also still carries a handkerchief.
But the spilling-subway woman called to my attention the number of men who ride the New York City subway carrying absolutely nothing. I dated one such man, who used to say that schlepping things was bad for the soul. I still am struck at that assertion of power, the arrogant nonchalance of someone who travels to work with nothing on his person but his phone, his wallet, and his keys. Since the spill, I notice them all the time — in particular, on my way home one night, a tall, dark-haired Italian model–type man in a super-slim suit and long, narrow shoes who seemed not to have room on his person for an extra credit card, let alone a stack of paper towels cadged from the bathroom at work, just in case. He looked like he believed he was Important, and maybe he was. The message encoded in empty spaces where a briefcase or a backpack might have been was this: I have people to carry things for me. Golf caddies. Bell hops. Assistants. Women.
Freedom from having to carry stuff is power. No wonder decluttering and closet organizing are framed as female aspirational goals. No wonder there’s a subreddit in the “minimalism” community for women endeavoring to go purseless. An informal survey of my social-media feeds finds a surprising number of women already wise to the joys of not carrying crap. Some women refuse to carry bags, in order to block their husbands from using those bags as repositories for their crap (glasses cases, cell-phone chargers, lip balm, keys — usually preceded by the innocent query, Are you taking a purse, babe?). A few appropriate their husbands’ or boyfriends’ pockets as receptacles for their own use — “but you can’t do that all the time,” concedes one.
For a growing number of women, it seems, a souped-up cell-phone case now does the work of a handbag without a handbag’s encumbrances: a credit card, a $20 bill, and a shoe lace or lanyard hack that lashes keys to the bundle and you’re done. Catharine Skipp, who works in the media-relations department at the University of Miami law school, likes to tuck the phone case into her waistband so her hands are free. Now all she carries in her hand is the occasional banana. “It used to feel awkward but not anymore,” she told me. Nearly every woman described the casting off of her burden as something like bliss, including one writer who spoke of her purseless experience in almost spiritual terms. “I do it to be free,” she DM’d me on Twitter. “To walk fully. After you carry a bag and then you don’t, you feel like you can fly.”
As with so many aspects of being female, a woman’s spill stewardship is rife with mixed messages. On the one hand, be prepared! Carry safety pins, tape, a pad and pen, Vaseline, extra socks, aspirin, Band-Aids, cough drops, healthy snacks, water (hydrate!), and hair clips, along with your necessities: mascara, eyelash curler, credit cards, and ear buds. Women still worry — reasonably, and maybe it all comes down to this — where they’ll keep their tampons if they don’t have a purse. On the other hand: Purge, declutter! A messy house/body/person reflects a disorganized — and possibly even psychologically diseased — mind. There is a small industry online bent on making female messiness a pathology. A new study shows that visitors to a disorderly home will judge the female inhabitant if they believe she’s responsible for the mess but give the male inhabitant a pass. “There’s no expected social consequence” for messy men, the researcher said. For a woman to abandon her Girl Scout role, she has to accept social censure and disapproval.
The job of cleaning up metaphorical spills frequently falls to women, too. It’s not just that most nursery-school teachers — those who get paid to mop up juice and milk and more than occasionally pee — are women; it’s that most communications professionals are women, too. Public relations is overwhelmingly women’s work: They’re left to spin, explain, and clear up the gaffes, mistakes, and malfeasances of the (mostly male) people in charge.
And nowhere is the presumption that cleaning up is women’s work more evident than in Trumpland, where women are deployed to tidy after a president who resembles a rhetorical Pig Pen. The writer Virginia Heffernan noted this tendency, of sending in the females — Sanders, Hicks, Conway — to mop up, in a brilliant essay in the L.A. Times. Trump has often treated his former press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders “as if she were the possession of her father, Mike Huckabee, on loan to him as a scullery maid,” Heffernan wrote. Which inevitably evokes the mental image of Hicks, who during the 2016 campaign literally carried a steamer with her at all times in order to help her most-vulgar candidate maintain a veneer of neatness. Did she carry the steamer in her Vuitton bag? Another strong argument for pockets.
*A version of this article appears in the July 22, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!