Nikki Haley, backward and in heels

From left, Chris Christie, Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis at the third Republican presidential debate in Miami on Wednesday. MUST CREDIT: Thomas Simonetti for The Washington Post

During Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate, the third this cycle and the third without presumptive nominee Donald Trump, candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, perhaps desperate to stake out any kind of difference between himself and the other four onstage candidates, took a swipe at two of his rivals’ footwear.

“Do you want a leader from a different generation who’s going to put this country first?” he said. “Or do you want Dick Cheney in three-inch heels, in which case we’ve got two of ’em onstage tonight.”

Ramaswamy was referring to reports that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis wears lifts in his cowboy boots, and to former U.N. ambassador and South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who has consistently dressed in high heels and skirt suits throughout her campaign (and is the only female Republican candidate).

Haley swept in with a comeback: “I’d first like to say, they’re five-inch heels, and I don’t wear ’em unless you can run in ’em,” she said to applause. “The second thing I will say is: I wear heels. They’re not for a fashion statement; they’re for ammunition.”

The quip was hardly improvised. In fact, it’s one of her favorite lines, one she first used more than a decade ago in the midst of the publicity tour to promote her memoir “Can’t Is Not an Option: My American Story.”

Still, after all these years, the meaning of the rebuke remains hard to puzzle out. Is she walking all over her opponents? Are her heels secretly a weapon? Or was this just a threateningly vague embrace of the right-wing zest for gun ownership, declaring women’s right not only to bear arms, but also to wear heels?

But Haley seemed to like her comeback; she posted the line on her X account that night, and by Thursday, she was selling a mug with the phrase on it for $19 on her campaign site.

The syntax may be gummy, but the meaning seems clear enough: Her femininity is her weapon – one that only she among the Republican candidates has access to. It’s a tactic that appears to be working: A 538/Washington Post/Ipsos poll of potential Republican voters who watched the debate found that Haley was Wednesday’s winner, with DeSantis 11 percentage points behind.

High heels are a familiar tool for those who want to use the double standard of femininity against itself: They are painful but a source of pleasure, intentionally difficult to walk in and therefore a source of power if you can wear them with ease or for long periods of time.

Their contradictory nature is a part of pop culture lore. It was famously said that Ginger Rogers did everything her dance partner Fred Astaire did but backward and in heels. In the recent documentary “The Super Models,” designer Isaac Mizrahi spoke about how the superstars of ’90s runways took what others viewed as weaknesses and turned them into strengths.

“These models took tropes about women and rather than be victims of them, they made them icons,” Mizrahi said. “It was like, ‘High heels are power.’ Whereas if you talk to Gloria Steinem, [she’d say], ‘You can’t run in high heels.’ And she’s right. She’s right! But we’re right, too. I mean, high heels are beautiful. And they make you look beautiful. And that’s a kind of empowerment.”

Haley is playing a similar game. As the necktie has remained a part of the male political uniform (all the candidates, even self-proclaimed disrupters like Ramaswamy, wear them), the high heel has gone out of fashion in most professional settings. So her commitment to them says something. Regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum, Haley seems to see her commitment to five-inch heels as an act of endurance, a testament to her stamina.

(One presumes DeSantis’s alleged lifts are more comfortable, because he is hardly the only politician who may rely on them, and even Trump was often thought to wear them.)

No one envies the scrutiny a female politician has to endure with her clothing choices, especially when men seem to skate through the wardrobe portion of this whole circus because the blue suit and red or blue tie is such a circumscribed, unquestioned uniform. Oh, that women had that option. Instead, what they wear has to become a part of what they want to say, and, more recently, women have embraced this rather than attempting to swat it aside.

During Hillary Clinton’s 2016 run, her campaign made her pantsuits a cornerstone of her persona rather than downplaying her gender, as it did in her 2008 campaign. (One of the designers of her suits, Nina McLemore, was frequently cited in coverage of her run, whereas neither Haley nor the designers of her suits or heels has shared their names.)

Rather than gripe about the inequality, Haley (like Clinton, actually) has seized on her clothes as another campaign battleground. Men don’t have the option to talk with their suits, so the thinking goes, so here’s a way Haley can articulate how she’s better than her opponents.

Haley hardly ever wears pants. This differentiates her from previous female candidates of either party, but also may be a way to say she’s running not because she doesn’t believe a man can do the job of president, but because, as she said when teasing her run in 2022, “sometimes it takes a woman.”

Her clothes are always flattering but always conservative, though her color choices make them look almost bold: a fringed bluish-white tweed coat dress for the first debate, in August; a burgundy silk skirt suit for the second, in late September; and a crinkled white suit last week. (She occasionally wears jeans at town halls or more casual events, which seems like her answer to the old male politician trick of looking relaxed by rolling up one’s shirt-sleeves.) She stands out without looking like she wants to.

Haley follows another lineage, one straight out of the Thatcherite playbook, where the idea was to appear like a familiar but unthreatening figure of female authority – a nanny, a grandmother, a teacher – laying down the tough discipline. (Margaret Thatcher is one of Haley’s icons, a model for her campaign policy. A favorite poem of Thatcher’s, “No Enemies,” was featured in a video teasing Haley’s campaign announcement, and she has pitched herself primarily as a fiscal conservative. Thatcher is also the source for the title of Haley’s 2022 book, “If You Want Something Done.”)

These are the kinds of women who follow the rules simply because they were given to them to enforce, not because they made them up. Like Rogers outdancing Astaire in her pumps, what makes her unusual is not the choreography, but that she executed someone else’s moves under duress.



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