Falling over in public is one of life’s most awkward events. Spontaneous trips and thumps to the tarmac can floor the most upright pedestrian; no amount of deportment can prepare you to hit the deck. A single slip and gravity does the job: you’re down, dirty and, often, momentarily humiliated.
Occasionally someone will come to the rescue: a friendly arm might hoist you up or dust you off, or you might get a sympathetic smile. Or, worst-case scenario, you’ll be stonewalled and treated like a pavement urchin.
In Julia Gillard’s case she had a whole complement of Indian diplomats to help her recover. The Australian prime minister stumbled and fell in front of the world’s media during a visit to the Gandhi memorial in New Delhi earlier this week. It was painful viewing. She wasn’t down for long it’s true, and at least she had a grassy landing pad (though, it later turned out, that was the cause of the fall in the first place).
I blame her shoes. Kitten heel court shoes are not fit for grassy terrain. Secondly, I blame the Indian hosts: what are red carpets for if not for prime ministerial visits? Gillard should have been given rush matting at the very least. But ultimately it was her choice of footwear that did it. The dainty slip-ons; the high heel that women politicians so often favour.
Let’s face it: feminine footwear has so many pitfalls. It may make for a nice gait and graceful poise but for some women it’s precarious – and it makes them vulnerable and wobbly. Gillard is one and, oddly, the fall came a fortnight after the prime minister made a fiery speech about sexism in the national parliament, a historic address that ushered her into the canon of modern feminists. It even prompted Australia’s leading dictionary to update its definition of the word misogyny.
Gillard lambasted the conduct of opposition leader Tony Abbott with gusto and put the case for women in politics – and then this week she was floored by her feminine choice of footwear. She explained afterwards that men don’t have this issue; they wear flats. Very compatible with grass, wouldn’t you agree?
But that made no difference to Australia’s conservative press. Politics is about power and plummeting to the floor doesn’t do anything for your kudos. Sydney’s Daily Telegraph put the upturned Labor Party leader on its front page under the headline “PM’s fall from grace”.
This was Gillard’s third shoe mishap this year. In August she slipped out of her footwear as she took the stage at a Sydney event, having already lost a blue suede court shoe during a demonstration in January when she was bundled into a car by her heavy-handed security outfit. An Aboriginal activist managed to retrieve the item and brandished it in front as of the world’s media as a trophy (it was a sea-blue wedge heel that, in hindsight, might have been just the thing for a wet lawn).
It is true that shoes might not be top of the agenda for a PM. But my advice to Julia: choose well. It is a rough old world out there for women in politics – steady pins are critical.