The Story of the Red Western Boots

This story of fashion and politics could start in at least two different places.

One is in southwestern Wisconsin, where my husband and I lived for a few years as we both transitioned from the final years of our careers into retirement. Not far from our house was one of my favorite places, The Shoe Box, which advertises itself as the “Midwest’s Largest Shoe Store.”

The Shoe Box - Black Earth, WI - Service Like It 'Oughta Be!

I tried not to spend all my free time there.

On one shopping excursion, I spotted a pair of Western boots by Dingo in a lovely shade of red. I already owned a pair in a more sedate brown color. I already owned a pair of cold weather boots in red. But I had nothing in this wonderful combination.

Still, I didn’t need them. I was teaching then and knew they didn’t fit with the rest of my work wardrobe. They were a luxury. But my husband saw me looking at them. On my next birthday, he handed me a big box. I pulled out the boots.

They became my special occasion boots. I also wore them whenever I needed a psychological boost, whether at work or elsewhere. For some people, it’s a suit or a certain shade of lipstick that makes a statement, that gives them the extra oomph. For me, it’s footwear.

The other place this story could start is in Japan in 2003, long before I owned the boots. I had the incredible good fortune of participating in the Japan Residencies Program, sponsored by the Japan-United States Friendship Commission, the Organization of American Historians, and the Japanese Association for American Studies. I spent two weeks giving lectures on American women’s history at Chiba University and another week presenting public talks.

Chiba University

One of the questions that came up a lot concerned Hillary Clinton, former First Lady and, in 2003, senator from New York. Did I think she would run for president?

I said I believed she would. But she wouldn’t win. Not that I didn’t want to see Clinton in the White House, but because enough other American voters would cast their ballots against her. I said I didn’t think there would be a woman president of the United States in my lifetime. Misogyny runs too deep.

In 2008, Hillary Clinton made her first run for the presidency but ultimately failed to secure the nomination from the Democratic Party. It went to Barack Obama, who became the country’s first black president and served two terms. Clinton supported Obama during his campaign and his presidency. She served as his secretary of state from 2009 to 2013.

Three years later, the Democratic Party chose Hillary Clinton as its candidate for president. She was eminently qualified, by virtue of her law degree and legal career and her long years of public service. On the campaign trail, she demonstrated a preference for slacks and matching blazers, a sartorial choice that launched a Pantsuit Nation of activist, liberal women.

Hillary Clinton zings Trump, GOP for ripping off her 2016 campaign slogan

The Republican Party selected a businessman and television reality program host who never held office. He claimed early in his campaign, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”

For me, the choice was clear from the beginning. As election day 2016 came closer, though, I grew uneasy. Misogyny has deep roots. It’s tenacious. I wasn’t sure Hillary Clinton could overcome that, despite her accomplishments. I tried to take comfort from the many pollsters who predicted a clear victory for her. I tried to hope just a little bit.

On election morning, I pulled on my red Western boots. I decided it was a day for hope and power. “I’m With Her” and “Stronger Together” were my slogans for the day. I started to imagine walking into my women’s history class the next morning, once again wearing the red boots, to talk with students about this history-making moment.

As more of the election results came in that night, I thought back to those discussions in Japan. I realized my initial beliefs had been correct. I took off my boots, tucked them in the back of the closet, and went to bed.

The next morning, I learned I’d been right–and wrong. Hillary Clinton won nearly 66 million votes, almost 3 million more than her opponent. So I’d been wrong about the popular vote, which clearly went to Clinton. But the electoral college swung the other way, and the election went to her Republican challenger.

Hillary Clinton delivered her concession speech the day after the election. “Our campaign was never about one person or even one election, it was about the country we love and about building an America that’s hopeful, inclusive and big-hearted,” she said. “Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.”

The red Western boots were not exiled for the next four years. I took them out of the closet many time to wear on special occasions, including elections.

In 2020, because of the pandemic, I opted to vote by mail rather than in person. I wore my slippers instead of the red boots when I filled out the ballot. There was a bright spot. This time, finally, a woman’s name was on it once again: Kamala Harris, senator from California. It was groundbreaking not because the Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, chose a woman as his vice presidential running mate, but because Harris is a woman of color.

Again, I allowed myself a bit of optimism but prepared for a difficult election season.

What followed was unprecedented. The Biden-Harris ticket won a clear victory, and the sitting president encouraged his supporters to contest the election results. A deadly, failed insurrection occurred at the Capitol. But today, two weeks later, the inauguration took place on schedule. Supreme Court associate justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina to sit on the court, swore in Kamala Harris as vice president.

Kamala Harris Sworn In As Vice President | New Hampshire Public Radio

Harris’s stunning purple dress and coat ensemble came from black designers Christopher John Rogers and Sergio Hudson. The color choice signals bipartisan support–a blending of Republican red and Democratic blue. It also has historical significance. It is a nod to women’s suffragists who adopted purple as one of their official colors more than a hundred years ago, and it’s an homage to Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to run for president. The outfit looks like power.

It was a historic day. A great day for the red boots, even if I could only wear them around the house.

Sources:

https://theshoebox.com/

https://www.cnn.com/2016/01/23/politics/donald-trump-shoot-somebody-support/index.html

https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/2016-election-forecast/

https://www.270towin.com/2016-election-forecast-predictions/

https://www.npr.org/2016/08/08/489138602/trump-comment-gives-clinton-a-campaign-slogan-with-layered-meaning

https://www.270towin.com/2016_Election/

https://www.cnn.com/2016/11/09/politics/hillary-clinton-concession-speech/index.html

Emily Rekstis, “Kamala Harris Wears 2 Black American Designers to the 2021 Inauguration — All the Details on Her Look,” Usmagazine.com

Reading Nonfiction in 2020

My nonfiction reading for 2020 was typical in terms of amount–too many to count. A lot of them were assigned for book reviews so I can’t include any of those in my best-of list. The other chunk was research reading for my (still) book-in-progress about Dale Evans.

(Dale Evans c. 1939)

The books for research reading usually don’t make it to my year-end list because I like to keep my work reading separate from my leisure reading. (The same goes for the book review books.) But I made an exception for a book I picked up because I thought it might provide some helpful background on women in 1940s-1950s Hollywood. It did, to a certain degree, but The Lady From the Black Lagoon turned out to be much more than that. Mallory O’Meara brilliantly writes about Milicent Patrick, an animator at Disney who went on to create one of the most iconic movie monsters. I kept thinking about the book, and about the many women ignored despite their achievements, long after I turned the final page.

Paperback The Lady from the Black Lagoon : Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick Book

O’Meara’s book did well, garnering reviews from The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and The Christian Science Monitor. It’s a great example of how the life of an “unknown” woman can be made into a fascinating story.

I also loved Sarah Broom’s The Yellow House, a memoir about growing up in New Orleans that’s infused with history and current events.

Hardcover The Yellow House Book

Broom’s debut was a New York Times bestseller, and it won the 2019 National Book Award. The writing is lovely, the story compelling.

My third favorite nonfiction book from 2020 was also a memoir, one first published in 1945 and quickly forgotten. Françoise Frenkel was a Polish Jewish woman who opened a French bookstore in Berlin in the 1920s. Pushed out in the late 1930s, she spent years fleeing the Nazis.

A Bookshop in Berlin

Another “unknown” woman, another important story. There seems to be a theme here with books I like to read–and write.

Dale Evans is the most famous woman I’ve ever written about, though she’s much less well known today than she was in the mid-20th century. Many of my blog posts in 2021 will center on that writing and publication journey. Stay tuned.

The Happy New Year Reading Roundup

2021 has finally arrived. When I woke up this morning, everything looked remarkably like it had the day before–the biggest clue that any changes that might happen won’t happen overnight. Still, fingers crossed for a really, really good new year.

HappyNewYear_2015
(from The Bookwyrm’s Hoard)

My 2020 was unimpressive in terms of numbers of books read. Not counting the books I read for professional reviewing and the ones for research for my own current manuscript, the total was 46. That’s an all-time low for me. (Last year: 64) Of course, 2020 was a pretty strange year, and that strangeness had an impact on my reading, especially because I couldn’t access the library as much as usual. And moving (in-state, but still….) took up a big chunk of my spare time.

I reread several of my favorite books in 2020, mostly because I had them right in the house. I hadn’t read Toni Morrison’s Beloved in a long time, and I was once again knocked sideways by its greatness. I revisited Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, still one of the best books I’ve ever encountered.

Of the new-to-me novels in 2020, here are the stand outs. I found the first four exceptional:

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

Beheld by TaraShea Nesbit

Beheld by TaraShea Nesbit, Hardcover | Barnes & Noble®

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

Transcendent Kingdom : A novel

The Girl With the Louding Voice by Abi Dare

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré

Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore

Afterlife by Julia Alvarez

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles

Conjure Women by Afia Atakora

Up next, reading nonfiction in 2020.

It Happened One Christmas

A week or so ago I scrolled through one of my streaming services, thinking I might get into the holiday spirit by watching a Hallmark-style movie. I read the descriptions of about a dozen and none really looked any better than the other. Then I saw this:

It Happened One Christmas (1977)

I remember watching this on television in the late 1970s. It’s kind of hard to believe now, but when it first aired in 1977, the movie on which it is based, Frank Capra’s 1946 It’s A Wonderful Life, was nowhere near as well-known as it is today. In fact, Marlo Thomas’s remake probably played a big role in reviving interest in the original film, which starred Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, and Lionel Barrymore.

I’d been a big fan of Marlo Thomas’s sitcom, That Girl, which ran on ABC for five years, until 1971. The show had a feminist bent–her character, Ann Marie, was a single career woman with a boyfriend she ended up not marrying–that represented Thomas’s own interests in women’s issues. During the 1960s and 1970s, the women’s movement was active and vibrant. The Equal Rights Amendment was a real possibility.

When That Girl ended, Marlo Thomas continued honing her acting skills, appearing on stage and in Hollywood films. In 1972 she released the now-classic album and book, Free To Be…You and Me that addressed issues of individuality and identity for boys and girls. She worked with the Ms. Foundation for Women. By about 1976, she had created two prime time television specials for ABC in 1973 and 1975 and was looking for a new project.

Marlo Thomas thought the time was right for a retelling of It’s A Wonderful Life, but with a gender-role reversal. She would play Mary Bailey, the daughter who gives up her dreams of international travel and writing to stay home and run the family’s building and loan. She cast the personable, charming Wayne Rogers as George Hatch, her builder husband. Thomas convinced Orson Wells to play the evil Mr. Potter, and Cloris Leachman came on board as the kooky angel Clara.

It should have worked. It could have become a modern Christmas classic. But it didn’t.

As I watched it again, I realized the problem was historical. Marlo Thomas kept the same time period, 1920s-1940s, for her remake, but failed to consider what it would mean for a middle-class, white, married woman to take a position as the head of a local financial institution. It also didn’t help that Mary Bailey Hatch talked and dressed like a woman straight out of the late 1970s. The lines that Jimmy Stewart delivered so well as George Bailey sounded artificial coming from Mary Hatch, like she was reciting them because she had to. And her fashions were just so distractedly wrong.

If Marlo Thomas had set the story in her current time–in 1977–she may have felt freer to explore the gender issues she was clearly so interested in, to invent better, sharper dialogue more in keeping with a liberated woman. And she would have created a more compelling, complex heroine.

Though ABC ran the Marlo Thomas remake at least two more times, it was quickly overshadowed by rebroadcasts of the original. Lots of viewers concluded that It’s A Wonderful Life was much better. Thomas had a great idea and the time was indeed right. Her inattention to history sunk It Happened One Christmas.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, everyone! I’m looking forward to watching Elf and A Christmas Story, which have recently become my two favorite Christmas movies. I may dip into White Christmas again, too.

Dr. Mary Walker, the Civil War, and Thanksgiving

Mary Edwards Walker, the only woman to receive the Medal of Honor, was born on this day, November 26, in 1832. This year, 2020, the anniversary of her birth falls on Thanksgiving, a holiday in the United States that has ties to the Civil War.

Raised as a free thinker by parents who valued education for both boys and girls, Walker graduated from the Syracuse Medical College in 1855 and went into private practice.

Mary Walker
(National Museum of American History)

A few months after the Civil War started in 1861, Dr. Walker closed her practice and went to Washington, D.C. seeking a commission as a surgeon in the United States Army. She was denied that commission because she was a woman. So she volunteered in military hospitals, both in the capital and in the field.

As historian Heather Cox Richardson wrote in a recent installment of her “Letters From an American” series, “We celebrate Thanksgiving because of the Civil War.”* To mark recent victories in the war that would end slavery and to keep up morale–assuring people their sacrifices were not being made in vain–President Abraham Lincoln designated August 6, 1863 as a national day of thanksgiving. Magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale encouraged him to do so. Two months later, he issued a proclamation identifying the last Thursday in November for the 1864 observance. Lincoln assumed Americans would have as much to be thankful for then. The president wrote:

“In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.”

Dr. Mary Walker admired President Lincoln and she likely approved of his Thanksgiving plans. But she was too busy to mark holiday celebrations. The summer of 1863 found her first in Pennsylvania, providing medical care in the wake of the battle at Gettysburg. Then she and Dr. Hettie Painter traveled together through parts of Virginia, stopping at makeshift hospitals to offer their services. In November 1864, Dr. Walker was in Louisville, Kentucky, hired by the U.S. Army as the head of the medical department of the Female Military Prison there. She had already survived a stint in a Confederate military prison in Richmond, Virginia, but refused to stop working for the army until the war ended.

According to Richardson, “Lincoln established our national Thanksgiving to celebrate the survival of our democratic government.” Dr. Mary Walker would go on to honor that survival by working to secure women’s voting rights and bring the adult female population into a fuller participation in that democracy.

*This historical information about Lincoln and Thanksgiving comes from Richardson’s November 25, 2020 letter. For the full text of Lincoln’s proclamation, see http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/thanks.htm.