Forward and in High Heels: from Ginger Rogers to Ann Richards to Kamala Harris

It’s certainly been an exciting November here at the Buzzkill Institute and, more importantly, of course, here in the United States. Buzzkill employees have been working around the clock, trying to keep up with the pace of news and to produce shows that are relevant to current events. And, Americans as a whole have seen a dramatic and tense presidential election night, an uneasy and fraught few days while the ballot counts went on and on in various American states, and, most important of all, have tried to continue our lives with the spectre of a worsening COVID crisis scaring us to death.

Last week, we had an interview with the excellent journalism historian, Dr. Teri Finneman, where she analyzed press portrayals of female politicians and candidates for national office, from Victoria Woodhull in the 1870s to Kamala Harris in the 21st century. Among many other things, Professor Finneman talked about the constant, and constantly frustrating, press references to the clothing and appearance of female candidates for high office throughout the decades, and pointed out the fact that male candidates were usually spared such scrutiny.

This sartorial double standard has been especially galling since references to the clothing and appearance of women politicians were obviously ways to belittle the abilities of women and ways to question their suitability for serious, stressful, “manly” political jobs. Some commentators may have replied that this was done unconsciously, and that they didn’t mean anything so shallow. But the persistence of this line of candidate analysis until very recently has certainly been a hallmark of weak and sexist journalism.

Things seemed to change a little, it seems to me, when Hillary Clinton ran for President in 2016. Now, I may be wrong about this, or jumping to a hopeful conclusion that analyzing clothing has changed and improved recently. But the whole embracing of “pantsuit nation” by the Democrats (based on Hillary Clinton’s preferred attire) seemed positive to me at the time (although, of course, I would have forgotten, or not listened to, critiques of her dress sense). And this past year’s presidential campaign,(with six women candidates for the Democratic nomination) didn’t feature as much appearance analysis as campaigns of the past. Of course, as I just said, I’m probably wrong about this, and we will need historians in the future to sift through the details and explore the subtleties.

I didn’t say “all appearance analysis” was less frequent, however. And one of the most common features of this campaign, especially after she received the Vice-Presidential nod from Joe Biden, was the shoes that Senator Kamala Harris wore on the campaign trail. Her range of footwear from tennis shoes, to hiking boots, to fashionable high heels appeared in seemingly endless photographs and graphic art prints.

Among other things, the zillions of depictions of Kamala Harris in heels reminded me of the famous line about Ginger Rogers — that she did everything that Fred Astaire did, but she did it backwards and in high heels. This has sometimes been used as ammunition against the ridiculous idea that women can’t handle complex tasks as well as men. In fact, the quote implies, they can do it better because the path to their success is more difficult (they sometimes have to do these tasks, if you will, “backwards” or with unreasonable hurdles in their way); and yet that success requires maintaining stereotypical standards of dress and appearance. Women must, in essence, do a man’s job the hardest way, yet continue to look as attractive as possible while doing it.

That made me look into the origins of this “backwards and in high heels” quote.

Like most of the quotes we examine on this show, its history and attribution are frequently cited incorrectly. Many people assume that Ginger Rogers said it herself — “I did everything Fred Astaire did, but I did it backwards and in high heels.” And it’s been attributed to her over and over through the years. But there’s no evidence that she ever said it.

Texas politician Ann Richards got the most attention for it, when she used the line during the 1988 Democratic Convention in Atlanta, Georgia. Richards was the Texas state treasurer at the time, and gave the keynote address. In it, she mentioned that female politicians had been major speakers only twice in the long history of Democratic conventions, and that “about two women in 150 years is par for the course” for the recognition of women at national conventions up until that time.

She continued, however, to say, “but if you give us a chance, we can perform. After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.”

That quote gets all the attention, but the entirety of Richards’ speech was a masterful piece of political rhetoric. She mixed policy with pointed jabs at the scandals of the Reagan presidency, to argue that George H.W. Bush (the Republican candidate) was unworthy of the top job. And she did it by relying heavily on her Texas accent at crucial points as if she were a gunslinger calling out a ne’er-do-well in an old Western movie.

Richards said she got the line from Linda Ellerbee, a prominent American broadcast journalist at the time. Ellerbee said she heard it from a fellow passenger on an airplane. But Ronald Reagan himself had used the line before, and it had also been attributed to Faith Whittlesey, a Reagan advisor and later Ambassador to Switzerland. The saying had been running around social circles a lot during the early 1980s.

As far as scholars can tell, that’s because it was first used by the cartoonist, Bob Thaves, in his popular “Frank and Ernest” comic strip, which featured two good natured, down-on-their-luck fellows with acute senses of observation and witty street-level wisdom. In a 1982 comic strip panel, Frank (and/or Ernest — it was never clear to me who was who) said of Fred Astaire, “Sure he was great, but don’t forget Ginger Rogers did everything he did…backwards and in high heels.”

Supremo quote investigator, Ralph Keyes, contacted Bob Thaves and asked him about the line. Thaves said that some lines, puns, and wordplay had been suggested to him over the years by readers, and that he sometimes used them in “Frank and Ernest.” But he was pretty certain that “backwards…and in high heels” was his own invention. So, until there’s more archaeological research done on this quote, the best attribution remains with him.

“Well,” I hear you saying, “this episode has taken a somewhat pedantic turn.” It started off as a general discussion about sexism in political and journalistic discourse, and then went down the rabbit hole of tracing a funny one-liner. But I kinda did that on purpose. In the first place, the quote has been used to lampoon the idea that men have natural superiority when navigating the political dance floor. Secondly, like almost all female politicians, Senator Harris has constantly had to prove her political and leadership abilities and fortitude throughout her career — from California prosecutor, to state Attorney General, to United States Senator, and now Vice-President-Elect.

And yet she hasn’t fallen into either trap of dressing-down in order to appease skeptical sexist voters, nor has she “glamoured-up” to please a different, although equally sexist, segment of public opinion that wants women politicians in perfect female makeup. Buzzkill Institute researchers have gone back and examined Vice-President-Elect Harris’ media portrayals throughout her career. And they’ve come to the shocking conclusion that it shouldn’t matter. Senator Harris appears in professional attire and casual attire, based, obviously, on what _she_ decides is the best presentation for any particular purpose or setting, and based on how _she_ wants to dress — from sneakers, through chukka boots, to high heels.

Perhaps I’m witnessing and analyzing all this too hopefully. Maybe I’m seeing this change because I have long wanted to see this change, and long-thought that this change (and, obviously, the biggest of all changes — a woman president sooner rather than later) is necessary for this country.

But what I certainly do see is a Vice-President-Elect who’s an intelligent, sophisticated, savvy, and extremely dedicated politician who has worked in various branches of government, with increasing responsibility at the local, state, and national levels. She’s a whip-smart lawyer who will kick ass and take names in Converse All Stars, Timberland hiking boots, and Versace heels, as situations change. And, most importantly, as _she_ decides what she wants to wear for each situation and occasion.

For our country, with all its continued sexism, discrimination, and over-emphais on unimportant adornment, the way Vice-President-Elect Harris’ has conducted her career is not a movement “backwards, and in high heels.” It’s “forward, and in high heels.”

Talk to you next week.

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