Once again, a BBC radio 4 programme prompted this post; in this case the prestigious flagship news programme, Today. At the end of the programme they tend to have a slightly flippant item (because obviously all the serious folk have gone to work!).
This particular item was about women’s handbags and how they provide an ice breaker for women in business. It followed an interview Hillary Clinton had given to Harper’s Bazaar magazine. This is what she said:
“I do love a good handbag,” she agrees. Can accessories be the great uniter of women? “I think they could be either a great divider or uniter,” she replies. “I’m on the uniter side. I think no one should make fun of anyone else’s handbag choices.” She warms to the topic. “I think we should be united in our support of one another. Because this is like a deep psychological need. It’s a desire to kind of organize and contain that which is important to you in your daily life. I have a philosophical view about this, and I have this Ferragamo hot-pink bag that I adore. My view was that I would carry it around only in spring, but it makes me so happy, I’m even now lugging it around in January. I mean, how can you be unhappy if you pick up a big pink bag?”
To discuss these remarks from one of the most influential women in America they had invited a female UK politician, Glenys Kinnock and an ex politician now pundit, Matthew Parris. Neither of them lightweights so my interest was piqued.
At first I was irritated. Here we go I thought, trivialising women again but then my sense of humour reasserted itself. Hillary Clinton had not been asked for her political views; everyone knows she is a serious, well established and committed politician. She was talking to a fashion magazine about the things which made her happy and which, presumably, gave her confidence a bit of a boost. Does it matter? Maybe they were being more stereotypical by asking a gay man on to comment?
Men and Women are Different
Sorry to state the bl***ing obvious but men and women are different in this respect. It’s not that all women think clothes and handbags are of paramount importance. It’s simply that some of us get pleasure from them, some of the time (it’s a whole other debate about advertising and brainwashing of young girls etc but that aside, I think women feel differently about these things).
Glenys Kinnock proffered the view that at meetings (I think she actually referred to international summits) handbags and shoes could be a great way of connecting, of levelling the ground. Admiring another woman’s bag or shoes was like extending a hand of friendship.
Matthew Parris’ response was interesting and illuminating. He first said his mother hated handbags. But then more interestingly that men would probably not say anything complimentary about another man’s attire or possessions at a business meeting because they would be using bags/wallets/shoes/laptops (paraphrasing now) to convey their status and authority. In other words, they would not want to be facilitative and levelling. They would want to be top dog.
That ties in with received wisdom and some research into how men and women behave in business. Women are generally more conciliatory and facilitative. And generally that is thought to be a possible factor in why women don’t rise to the top- we lack the killer instinct. Yet by every measure Hillary must be seen as a woman at ‘the top’, even if she didn’t get the presidential nomination. She’s a success story. So she can talk about handbags…
(Of course, there is always an exception. I doubt whether Maggie Thatcher ever complimented anyone on their handbag in order to be conciliatory!)
What do you think? Are you turned off by discussions about handbags? Do you think it belittles and demeans serious women? Or do you think the world would be a better place if we all carried beautiful colourful bags around? Men too!