For eight hours earlier this week, congresswoman Nancy Pelosi defended Dreamers, the young undocumented immigrants who grew up in the US and whose right to remain in the country has become a political bargaining chip in Washington DC.
Pelosi gave the longest-running speech in the history of the House of Representatives, lasting from 10:04am to after 6pm, in a show of opposition to a proposed government funding deal that does not include a path to citizenship for Dreamers. Most of her speech was spent reading stories about Dreamers and their American lives.
She also wore four-inch stilettos. According to images shared on social media, the shoes may have been Jimmy Choos, a favorite of the congresswoman (who has been spotted ducking into designer boutiques).
It’s an impressive physical and mental feat, of course. Anyone who wears high heels regularly knows that it is more painful to stand in heels for long periods of time than it is to walk in them. Scientists at Hanseo University in South Korea even found that years of wearing high heels can weaken your muscles and increase the risk of serious injuries. Pelosi, aided by adrenaline and decades of practice, probably didn’t feel a thing.
But people on social media have been driving the narrative that Pelosi giving an eight-hour speech in high heels is a feminist statement—that a 77-year-old woman standing at the podium for an entire day in a pair of heels scientifically proven to be uncomfortable is inspirational.
Actually, it’s depressing that we’re so fixated on a pair of shoes that Pelosi probably wears every day, instead of what Pelosi spoke about for eight hours. Pelosi can wear whatever she wants—whether it’s a pair of Tevas or the heels that women in her office tend to prefer, according to insider reports. If Pelosi had chosen a pair of shoes for comfort instead, that probably would have made headlines, too, because society can’t seem to stop talking about what women wear.
In June 2013, Texas’s then-senator Wendy Davis, a fellow Democrat wore a pair of pink Mizuno running sneakers to filibuster for 11 hours to delay a bill that would effectively close dozens of abortion clinics across the state. She also wore a back brace and a urinary catheter—in other words, she was dressed for battle in a different way. When images of Davis’s sneakers circulated on social media, people began imbuing them with feminist values.
“I’m hoping that when I lace these babies up and step out, every male troglodyte who sees my feet will recognize these red shoes and know that I am dead serious about controlling my own body and making my own reproductive choices,” wrote one reviewer on Mizuno’s website.
But seeking meaning in those Mizuno sneakers was a mistake: Mizuno’s president, Robert Puccini, turned out to be a donor to the Republican National Committee, and the company announced in a public statement that it was not enthused about the political association.
It’s time to stop looking for symbolic power in what women wear or how they look. Davis’s shoes were not an explicitly feminist statement, and Pelosi has not claimed that hers were, either. Sometimes a shoe is just a shoe.
Shaving your armpits or losing five pounds or wearing high heels for eight hours in defense of Dreamers are not feminist acts just because women do them in the course of politics. As I’ve written before, “[e]mpowerment is not the same thing as feminism. They can be empowering or even pleasurable to us because they make us more confident in a patriarchal society that expects so much of women, but they don’t have to be feminist.”
Pelosi did a heroic thing yesterday: She defended a cause that more than 80% of Americans agree with for eight hours. The heels were a personal choice, not a feminist choice.