I was proud to watch President Obama’s inauguration. I had seen the movie “Lincoln” the night before. I could not ignore the significance of President Lincoln’s fight to end slavery, the importance of the work of the civil rights movement commemorated by Martin Luther King Day and the second swearing in of our first African American president. Even if you disagree with the politics of our president, these three stories show how much our country has grown and matured in the 150 years since the Civil War. We have gone from a country divided about the equality of all human kind to an inaugural parade led down Pennsylvania Avenue by a man born of mixed race parents, raised by a single mother and a grandmother. President Obama walked hand in hand with his beautiful wife, herself raised in a working family, descendants of slaves.
Our journey is not over. Racism is not dead. Equal pay for equal work is still debated. The accident of one’s birth still determines many of the challenges each of us face in living our lives. Inauguration Day, January 2013, was just a chapter heading in the story of our nation.
There was one thing that disturbed me about Barack and Michelle Obama’s hike down the avenue. The offending disparity was the obvious inequality of Michelle’s shoes. She wore tall, slim boots with high skinny heels and narrow pointy toes. Barack, on the other hand wore very shiny, flat, comfortable looking dress shoes. Michelle’s shoes probably were relatively comfortable. They may even been made just for her and fit perfectly. She walks gracefully even though balancing on her toes and three inch heels the size of a number two pencil. After a block or so, no matter how well made or perfectly fitting, I know Michelle was well aware that those boots were not meant for walking.
I wore spike-heeled, pointy-toed shoes back in the late sixties and early seventies. The heels of my youth had tips measuring approximately one-sixteenth of a square inch. The forces applied by those tiny heels bearing nearly all of a woman’s weight produced divots in flooring. My mother banned us from wearing our shoes on her new linoleum. The toes were pointy and not well designed for someone with feet like mine. My feet have been described as “hobbit feet” by others. (Read the description of Hobbit’s feet in J. R. R. Tolkien’s work.) Short, square toed, wide, and sturdy are the feet I inherited from my mother. My feet prefer to be without shoes, winter or summer, inside or out.
In spite of my preference for shoelessness, as a young woman I succumbed to the whims of fashion. For years I squeezed my toes into shoes too narrow and pointy and tottered along on heels too high. Then shoe styles changed. Toes were shaped more like feet and heels became wider, lower and more stable.
The trend for more sensible shoes coincided with the rise of feminism. Women struggled to be treated equally in the work place, to have traditionally defined “women’s” work valued and to be given the choice to choose their own identities. Power suits and practical, comfortable shoes were considered stylish even among young women. Shoes that allowed women to walk comfortably, to run, to stand firmly, put women on equal footing (sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun) with their male counterparts.
I threw out my pointy-toed, three inch spike heels. I opted for square toes and boxy heels or flat shoes. My feet loved the change in styles. I vowed to never wear shoes with stiletto heels or spear-shaped toes again.
Here we are, forty years later, and our beautiful, strong, independent minded, intelligent, well-educated First Lady is hiking in the middle of the street wearing shoes almost exactly like the ones I threw away four decades ago. Fashion is cyclical. Tie-dyed T-shirts and flowing bohemian skirts and sandals are also back in style.
So maybe we haven’t traveled as far as we thought. Fashion is a reflection of how we look at ourselves. We are still putting women in foot wear that essentially hobbles them. Hillary Clinton made the news when she lost her shoe, a lower skinny heel and pointy-toed pump, on the steps of Paris’ Elysee Palace. Barbara Walters, never one to be seen in sensible shoes, recently took a tumble and hit her head, perhaps a result of climbing stairs in fashionable foot wear. Little girls are dressed as princesses in fluffy, gossamer dresses and modified heels which are totally impractical for running, climbing and jumping. Finding dress shoes that are somewhere between flip flops and four inch heels is challenging.
In spite of the strides towards human equality we celebrated this week, fashion still seems to be telling women that we need to look young and be skinny, to dress in short skirts, tight blouses and stiletto heels to be attractive and successful.
Our country’s story continues, and we still have more chapters to write.
Copyright © 2013 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains