I’ve always loved Tristan Bridges’ Sociological Images piece about how we can readily see the ways that we “do gender” by analyzing what we carry around with us every day. Bridges focuses on wallets and purses, telling the story of a transgender women who struggled to learn the norms of purse-carrying during the process of socially transitioning to being recognized as a woman – remembering to bring it, knowing what to put in it, how to carry it, etc. Aside from the fact that wallets and purses themselves are gendered, Bridges shows how what we put in those wallets and purses is also gendered. I’ve found the four-by-four schema presented in the piece to be a great model for getting students to analyze the contents of their own wallets and purses and to reflect on the ways that gender norms influence their choices.
In this activity, I build directly from Bridges’ piece to get students thinking about whether and how gender norms influence the kinds of things they carry around with them. While Bridges focuses on wallets and purses, I’ve found that students are most likely to be carrying backpacks. So I complicated Bridges’ piece a bit to get students thinking about not only how wallets and purses are gendered, but also how what might seem like a gender-neutral bag – backpacks – may or may not conform to some of the same gendered norms found among wallet and purse carriers.
I’ve used this activity in an Introduction to Gender Studies class and an Introduction to Sociology class. It’s worked great in both contexts. I usually run this activity during a week/day that’s devoted to understanding concepts like socialization and the social construction of gender. I have students read the Bridges piece, either as part of the week’s readings or as part of the activity itself, and then hand them the attached handout with a four-by-four schema and some discussion questions. Then we talk as a class about their analysis. Students enjoy the interactive and tactile aspect of the activity (I ask them to dig through their bags), and it gets them talking about sociological concepts like gender norms, socialization, and “doing gender.”
Jacqui Frost is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. Her research interests include non-religion and religion, culture, and civic engagement, and her dissertation project is an ethnographic study of a non-religious community.