JUST AS WOMEN once lived with discrimination on the job, today we accept -- often without even noticing -- another invidious form of unequal treatment on the basis of sex.
It happens in restaurants, movie theaters, sports stadiums, doctors' offices, cars and houses. It can lead to crime, and almost always is dirty, irritating or at least inconvenient. It affects at least 90 million adult women in the United States today.
The problem: There's no place to put a purse.
The issue may not rank up there with equal employment opportunity or equal access to credit. It doesn't leave women poorer than they would be otherwise, or deny them promotions.
But it shows how unyielding the attitudes that caused those inequities still are. Can women be considered fully participating members of a world that completely ignores their needs in the design and construction of public facilities?
I admit those needs are self-imposed. I'm hooked on handbags. I can't go next door without a satchel full of necessities. It's when time comes to put it down that society fails me.
When I leave a movie, my purse is dripping with popcorn and Coke. At the Orioles games, it's mustard and beer. When I drive, the strap gets tangled in the gearshift. In restaurants, waiters grumble as they alternately trip over my purse on the floor or crash into it as it hangs from the back of my chair. My dentist must stub his toes every day on purses plopped down by his examination chair.
Not one shelf, not one hook, not one niche is specifically intended for purses. The choice is usually between dirty floors, slippery chair-backs, obtrusive door-knobs or your lap.
As a result, women are vulnerable to robbery. My purse was stolen from the floor beside my chair as I lunched in a fast-food restaurant. The police officer said I should have held it on my lap. A 16-year-old girl crawled under a table at Rumors and snatched the purse of a friend from next to her feet. Another friend had her purse stolen from the back of her chair in a New York bar.
"No planning has ever taken into account that women would ever be out in public. That's why grates in city streets can cripple you if you wear high heels," said Wendy Reid Crisp, editor of Savvy magazine.
"If men carried purses, every bar stool would have a hook on it. Every restaurant table would have a hook on it. We're not talking about the greatest innovative design that was ever heard of."
This would be bad enough if society were designed entirely by men. But even environments built exclusively for females ignore purses. Have you ever seen a purse-shelf in a beauty parlor?
Nor are there any indications that the suppliers of public places have any intention of changing their ways, even though installation of hooks and shelves could hardly involve major renovation.
"We have never considered it. We always operated under the assumption a grown woman would be able to take care of her own purse," said Marvin Goldman, owner of K-B Theaters. "If I were walking though a field that had been freshly manured, I wouldn't put my purse down. If you put your purse down somewhere and it is kicked or gets dirty, it's your own fault."
Whose fault is it that women's needs are not being met? Ours. We have failed to demand that society shape itself to our convenience. We haven't used our market power to bring about change -- boycotts of restaurants without purse-places are pretty rare -- and we have only occasionally noticed we ought to.
"Women are used to having to manipulate to find a place for their purse, so they kind of take it for granted that it's not easy," said Susanne Gatchell, a technology planning director for General Motors who has surveyed women on what kind of storage space they prefer in autos.
The flippant might respond that women could carry essentials in their pockets to avoid this problem. Indeed, purses are viewed in some quarters as symbols of enslavement to femininity or to a masculine image of women.
Nothing could be further from the truth. If women carry purses -- and almost all of us do -- we're exercising free choice. We just should be asking that society accommodate that choice, the way we pushed for equal access to credit or employment or promotions.
Or maybe we could even things up by lobbying to get rid of urinals.