06/13/2011 06:55 am ET Updated Aug 13, 2011

My Handbag, Myself

The other night, as we were getting ready to go out, my husband asked me once again if I really needed everything in my purse -- a word I use loosely since the bag I carry is closer in size to a small suitcase than to a dainty little handbag. Because my 50-year-old hormones were raging, rather than simply saying, "Yes, honey, I do," I proceeded to dump the contents to show him exactly what I was toting around with me.

Out poured my wallet (which was bulging with credit cards, frequent buyer cards, bank cards, gift cards, business cards, Sweet N'Low packets), cell phone, tissues, hairbrush, lip gloss, pens, Advil, Tums, checkbook, gum, sunglasses, keys, fragrance and dental floss. All necessities, right? The question wasn't whether I needed to carry all this -- it was why my husband didn't!

And then the answer became obvious. I was carrying everything we both needed, including his keys, his cell phone, his wallet, his medication and his sunglasses. After a barely audible "hmm," he offered to hold my bag for a while, and I logged on to Facebook to do an unscientific study of how many of my female friends were lugging around their husband's stuff. The numbers were staggering. Apparently, when men decided to become the hunters/gatherers, women ended up being the carriers.

What happens, though, when the men and women aren't together? My husband sticks his driver's license, a credit card and a couple of dollars in one pocket, his keys in another and his cell phone in yet another -- and off he goes. I, on the other hand, usually switch to an even bigger bag so I can throw in a book (what if I'm stuck waiting somewhere?), a notepad (someone might tell me about a great store or vacation spot), my iPod (sometimes it's necessary to just tune out), tampons (those 50-year-old hormones are unpredictable) and a protein bar (I may need the energy to carry this purse).

Although the motto for both the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts is "Be prepared," honestly, who would you rather be with in an emergency? Sure, the guys may be able to build a fire but chances are the females will have snacks ready to eat right out of their bags -- along with a book of matches from that nice restaurant they ate in the other night.

A recent study by Special K Mini Breaks of more than 2000 women in the UK showed that "women see their bags as an emotional security blanket and feel most comfortable when they have everything they may need on them just in case something crops up." It's the "Let's Make A Deal" approach to life -- you never know what someone might ask you for -- and it often results in some kind of prize. I've made new friends simply by offering a Tic Tac to the person having a coughing fit next to me and providing a tissue to a woman whose child had a bloody nose in the playground.

When my business partners and I were lucky enough to travel to Australia with Oprah last year, we felt such a strong sense of peace and well-being -- not just because we were with the Big O herself but because, out of 302 Ultimate Viewers, 242 were women. We all knew if we needed anything at all -- sunscreen, a hat, seasickness bands -- one of them was bound to have it in her purse!

Someone could do a great documentary about what women carry in their handbags because not only do the contents reveal so much about their personality, but women are usually happy to empty them out and show the world. "Women revealed the deepest, darkest secrets of their handbags to us in this research," says Louise Davies about the Kellogg's study. "They certainly didn't hold back when revealing the weird and wonderful things in their bag. The most bizarre items included a vampire voodoo doll, sex toys and a piano tuning fork! The mind boggles as to why a vampire voodoo doll may come in handy!"

This may explain why men -- and children -- often find women's purses so mysterious and intimidating. Ask any of them to get something out of your bag for you, and chances are they'll simply bring you the whole purse. Who knows what they'll find when they stick their hand in the abyss? As a movie reviewer for, I go to a lot of screenings where security guards -- generally male -- check bags before letting us in, and I've noticed that the bigger my bag is, the less likely they are to actually go through it, especially if there's any kind of feminine item near the top.

Carrying an oversized bag, of course, does have its drawbacks. If only I could have a bag like Mary Poppins did -- one which would magically hold lamps and coat racks but still leave you light enough to fly. Unfortunately no one has invented that yet and my bag, which I just plopped on the scale in the name of research, weighs a whopping 8.5 pounds. This may account for the visible dent in my right shoulder which caused my orthopedist's eyes to light up ("vacation!") and has always provided a comfortable spot for my children's heads.

When my shoulder flares up, though, and I need to make a doctor's appointment -- no worries. I have aspirin, my insurance card and an ice pack right here in my purse.

Lois Alter Mark is the co-founder of