We Women Demand: Pocket Parity


All I want for Christmas is a pocket. Down through the centuries, pockets – acclaimed by Mark Twain as “among the most useful of inventions” – have long been a gendered thing. Men have them; women seldom do.

For years I have been complaining about this inequality. Thus it was welcome to discover that someone – a woman naturally – has written a book that calls out this “pocket sexism.” Hannah Carlson’s Pockets: An Intimate History of How We Keep Things Close delves into the 500-year history of the pocket and catalogs its unequal benefits.  

A lecturer in dress history at Rhode Island School of Design,” author Carlson starts out tracing the beginnings of the pocket in the 16th Century. The word itself was borrowed from the French word for bag, poche. When followed by the diminutive, -ette, it meant “a small bag.” The pocket was essentially an empty space. Without contents pockets are nothing but potential, waiting for content. 

Tailors began stitching them into men’s breeches in the 1600s. Early-day pockets were often used to store weapons — knives and short-barreled pistols known as “pocket dags.” For their part, women had to make do with pendulous purses attached to belts, hanging low, dangling about mid-thigh over or under their gowns. Even those flimsy containers vanished when fashion decreed high-waisted dresses in the Edwardian era.

Denied useful pockets (decorative flaps don’t count), women have resorted to handbags, an inconvenient and expensive alternative, modeled after a lawyer’s attache case. These accessories are a constant psychic distraction (“where did I leave my handbag?”). In addition, there are legal drawbacks. When a woman walks out the door with a handbag, she will not receive the same legal protections as a man who is furnished with pockets. That issue was decided in a Supreme Court case, Wyoming v Houghton. In 1999 Justice Antonin Scalia ruled that searching a woman’s purse (unlike searching one’s pockets) did not violate Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

Distinctions between pockets and satellite handbags matter, not only aesthetically and legally but also in terms of agency. That’s something that poet Emily Dickinson recognized in the 19th century when she insisted her dressmaker sew a single patch pocket into dresses she wore. In that pocket, Dickinson kept a short pencil and scraps of paper, reflecting her thoughts. As Pockets’ author Carlson observed: “She had a room of her own—and a reliable pocket.”

Throughout the years since Dickinson’s feat, many women have railed over the absence of pockets. Back in 1937, Diana Vreeland, fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar, declared she wanted to abolish all handbags. Bitterly complaining that the “bloody old handbag” was a nuisance, she announced her plan to devote a whole future issue to “just showing what you can do with pockets.” But, alas, her plan was dashed when she ran into the editor-in-chief. Her boss told Vreeland she sounded as if she’d lost her mind: No fashion magazine could risk losing the advertising revenue from handbag manufacturers.

Custom designers sometimes have tried to work oversized patch pockets and purse-like additions into fashion, but without much success. Even the addition of shallow pockets to women’s slacks (less useful than men’s roomier pockets) haven’t ended the reality of the gendered politics of pockets. One can only ask: Why can men enjoy up to 24 pockets (number found in some three-piece suits) and women seldom have even one?

In one inventive demonstration, a woman editor at BuzzFeed in 2017 conducted a real-world experiment to test how men would feel if they were rendered pocketless. She enlisted four male volunteers from her office and sewed their pockets shut. Experiencing pocketless pants for the first time, the volunteers not only left their work badges behind and forgot their wallets, but they also had difficulty ordering food and figuring out how to navigate a urinal while holding a cell phone. By the end of the day, one of the volunteers likened the experience to “knowing electricity had been invented but being forced to live in the dark.”

Hannah Carlson fills Pockets with such entertaining albeit bittersweet examples of what pocket sexism has meant. She observes that the inequality leaves its indelible mark on each generation. Acquisition of pockets was – and still is – a rite of passage in Western culture for boys, but not for girls. Little girls are still shoved into skinny jeans while little boys can expect mini-paratrooper pockets that button and snap. There’s no wonder many a mother has pleaded: “Please put pockets in girls’ jeans!”

Today each of us has a small role to play working towards pocket parity. And if you’re giving a female friend or relative a gift for Christmas, make it – not a pricey handbag (lord, you could spend thousands) – but a copy of Hannah Carlson’s Pockets and a shirt with a pocket roomy enough to hold her cell phone.


Jean Godden
Jean Godden
Jean Godden wrote columns first for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and late for the Seattle Times. In 2002, she quit to run for City Council where she served for 12 years. Since then she published a book of city stories titled “Citizen Jean.” She is now co-host of The Bridge aired on community station KMGP at 101.1 FM. You can email tips and comments to Jean at jgodden@blarg.net.


  1. Sympathies to my colleague in need of pockets. I shared your fate for years following the blessed relief of leaving suits of however many pieces aside. Side pockets in trousers, two pockets often slim and not all that deep, were as restrictive as your often pocketless fashions. Rear pockets are worse when you end up sitting on their contents, or worse still rear pockets are a boon to pick-pockets, the easiest of all pockets to pick.
    As long as slim or just design lines that fall with elegance to enhance women’s looks prevail, you’re stuck. I don’t see women’s fashions going the casual route of suitless men, so we presumably both suffer from pocket deficit.
    Enter the vest. In may case rescued by my journalistic craft in TV and radio, and for current journalists, the all-in requirements of writing, texting, online filing, photography, and sound recording. Did I leave anything out?
    The photographer/fishing vest was my solution. My favorite old Banana Republic vest has, count-em, 28 pockets include the giant on my rump that can manage a 300mm lens or takeaway lunch.
    So the challenge changes. Are any designers listening? Elegant, stylish vests to enhance a woman’s wardrobe. Vests that have hidden well designed pockets to keep from looking like the lumps and bumps of the male variety.
    I am not asking for a revolution. Women’s vests are hardly a new idea. They’ve been around since before Joan of Arc who wore her’s in metal to ward off spears and arrows. The kinds of vests that a woman can wear to the office, to dinner, to the theatre or a rock concert, the possibilities are endless.
    I can see them now, the Godden line of vests.

    • As a male, I never put anything in my rear pockets. Besides the fear of pickpockets, it’s not comfortable to sit down with the pockets filled, and a friend once lost a wallet because he was slouching in a movie theater and it slid out of his back pocket. My phone, keys and wallet all go in my front pockets.

      When I was a bank teller years ago, we had to carry keychains for our teller stations and the like. Our female trainer recommended skirts with pockets to the female tellers for that purpose.

  2. If you’re looking for a reliable and efficient way to accidentally deliver your mobile phone into the toilet bowl in any restroom, you won’t fine a better one than that back pocket on any pair of women’s jeans.

  3. Afraid I’d be entering the game too late. There already is an outfit that produces women’s vests — in fact I have one. The maker is SCOTT-e-VEST and they are functional, yes; glamorous, no; but they have plenty of pockets (15 I think). Use my vest for grocery outings, but still forced to lug a purse to more formal events.

    As to Joan of Arc, I’m not so sure. Wasn’t it Mark Twain who complained in “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” that there weren’t any pockets in armor?

    • True about the armor, but face it all you needed was a lance or a mace, and if you slayed the opponent, well, then we’re back to wearable, useful vests.

  4. I always carry a backpack or a messenger type bag with me. The problem is I can’t the item I need because I don’t know which section it’s in. And but I’m trying to check do I have all these items before I go out? There’s a panic in 15 minutes of going through pulling everything out and putting it back in.

    We need some sort of a magnetic device will make sure that all of those items are brought to you wherever you are.

    The next day you end up looking for things that could be at multiple jackets bags and everything you have is scattered through multiple accessories.

    My middle name should be Waldo


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