What is it about women and power and . . . shoes?
When Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D- Calif.) gave a modern record-setting eight-hour speech on the House floor on Wednesday, the fact that she was wearing four-inch stilettos got almost as much attention as the immigration issue that had prompted her to take the floor.
Social media was mesmerized. And on MSNBC, Rachel Maddow constructed her own version of the shoes, taping a sneaker to a ruler, and marveled: “I don’t know if I could do it for eight minutes, let alone eight hours.”
Then came the backlash. “I think Nancy Pelosi is a warrior. But I HATE that even other women are making her damned shoes the hook,” a reader named Kelly Wood wrote on Twitter, in response to my own column leading with a reference to Pelosi’s gunmetal-blue pumps.
The fact is, for women in politics, footwear is a metaphor — one feminists themselves have embraced.
Shoes on a powerful woman do more than just get her from one place to another. They can declare her female identity and her determination to power through to victory on an uneven playing field.
They can awe.
In 1988, then-Texas treasurer Ann Richards created a feminist rallying cry when she recycled an old joke during her keynote address to the Democratic National Convention: “Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.”
Then again, why should she have to?
For much of the 1990s, women in Washington preferred to have their feet blend in. One staple here was the Ferragamo Vara pump, whose low heel, rounded toe and grosgrain-ribbon bow spoke of practicality and disposable income.
Those shoes were at the outer limit of my own price range, but I bought two pairs anyway. One day, then-Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) spotted them as she passed me in a Capitol hallway. In my memory, she was wearing them, too.
“You know what Madeleine Albright calls those shoes?” she told me. “Post-menopausal mary janes.”
Suddenly, my expensive pumps with their perky little bows felt like a surrender.
There are times when shoes can announce that a woman has taken charge.
In 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived at the Army airfield in Wiesbaden, Germany, in a military-style coat and black leather knee-high boots with needle-thin heels. “Rice looked as though she was prepared to talk tough, knock heads and do a freeze-frame ‘Matrix’ jump kick if necessary,” Post fashion critic Robin Givhan wrote, noting that there was a “sexual frisson” to the whole effect.
At the other end of the statement-shoe spectrum were the rouge-red Mizuno Wave Rider trainers that got Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis (D) through an 11-hour filibuster against an antiabortion bill in 2013. The shoes became a bestseller.
All of this is not just an American phenomenon. Britain is obsessed with what covers the feet of Prime Minister Theresa May, who has a seemingly bottomless collection of leopard-print pumps and addressed her first summit of European leaders wearing flats that were covered in a print of lipstick kisses.
“It is interesting that people focus on my shoes — I don’t think they focus on Philip Hammond’s or Boris Johnson’s in quite the same way,” May told “Good Morning Britain,” referring to two of the country’s leading male politicians. “But look, do I regret the fact that people look at my shoes? Hey, it gives me an excuse to go and buy new shoes.”
Partisanship clearly affects how we judge what constitutes a shoe pas, imposing a sort of stiletto double-standard.
Where Pelosi was celebrated for wearing impractical high heels, first lady Melania Trump was mocked as “disaster Barbie” for wearing them when she boarded Air Force One to see the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey. (By the time she got off the plane, she was in white sneakers.) But the shoe was on the other foot in 2009, when Michelle Obama was lambasted by the right for wearing $540 Lanvin cap-toe suede sneakers to a food bank.
Granted, these are criticisms that no one would ever make about a man, and there are plenty of things to hate about a fashion industry that imposes pain as the price of stylishness.
Sometimes, a shoe is just a shoe. And sometimes, there is something inspirational in adding an extra degree of difficulty to standing one’s ground and not going wobbly.
So it’s okay to take note — and even to cheer — when a woman chooses not to do things the easy way.
Still, my own closet is lined with low heels and rubber soles. The colors I buy go all the way from black to dark brown.
Because, let’s be serious. I’ve got to walk in those things.