I listened to a great podcast the other day. It was on BBC Woman’s Hour and was talking about Margaret Thatcher and her handbag.
Apparently, when she was Prime Minister of the UK, Margaret Thatcher took her handbag everywhere. It was black, slightly briefcasey in appearance, and in many ways, as formidable as its owner was.
Thatcher carried that handbag with her during summit meetings with Gorbachev and Reagan often placing it on shiny, mahogany conference tables like a challenge or across the front of her body like a shield. That handbag came to be known as Thatcher’s not so secret weapon because politicians and diplomats the world over never knew what she would pull out of it or what it contained.
I found it fascinating that a woman as strong and indomitable as Margaret Thatcher carried a handbag everywhere she went. It was as if she carried a little piece of femininity into a realm of male supremacy.
The story of Margaret Thatcher’s handbag reminded me of my Scottish grandmother who incidentally, was also called Margaret but was referred to as Peggy. Peggy Hamilton. She kept her maiden name during a time when it just wasn’t done and worked her entire life at a local bookmaker’s. Barely five foot tall, she ran that place and what she didn’t know about betting and horse-racing wasn’t worth knowing.
Peggy Hamilton had a handbag. A big, black, shiny handbag. She took it everywhere with her – even up to the shops when all she was doing was buying a bottle of milk. When she walked into a room the first thing she did was put the handbag on the table. Then she would take off her gloves and put them inside. The click of the clasp on the handbag was like a gunshot.
As we sat without our elbows touching the table we gazed at that handbag. It loomed. It intimidated. It was a portent of doom. My sister thought it contained thousands of sweets. But I thought it was a kind of Pandora’s box.
We were frightened to look inside but also eaten away by curiosity. One day when our grandma was cooking lunch we couldn’t stand it anymore and my sister, Shelley, always daring, always reckless, clicked open the clasp. It was as loud as a thunderclap right inside the room.
My grandma was there, by the bag, finger on the clasp as quick as those robots from Terminator 2 – all-seeing, all-powerful. We sat back in our chairs, hearts racing as she circled the table muttering : ‘I wonder why any child would dare to open their grandmother’s handbag without permission. I wonder why they would be so rude.’
We didn’t say a word, we hardly dared to breathe. I thought that if I died right there and then it might actually be for the best. My grandmother went back to cooking lunch leaving the handbag on the table. A challenge. A thick underlining of her authority.
When shoulderbags became hugely popular in the 1970s my grandmother scoffed. ‘Who could be bothered with such frivolity?’ she said. ‘No one takes someone who carries a shoulderbag seriously.’
I was overjoyed with the purple suede fringed shoulderbag I’d gotten for my tenth birthday but I began to rethink the value of it under my grandmother’s unwavering scrutiny. I began to think that maybe a handbag was a more appropriate kind of accessory, even for someone wearing flares and platform shoes. I began to bow to the power – unquestionable and abiding – of the big, black handbag.
I have favoured handbags over shoulderbags ever since.
When my grandmother died every member of the family agreed that her handbag be buried with her. It seemed right somehow. None of us ever knew what her handbag contained, none of us ever had the courage or desire to open it (even after her death) for we felt in our hearts that it held a part of her it was important not to tamper with.
I know that wherever she is now she is keeping things under control with that handbag, opening and closing the clasp with all the impact of an exploding star.
And I know she is happy about it.