Architect calls out premier for focusing on her shoes instead of her work

Johanna Hurme
Johanna Hurme

WINNIPEG – An award-winning architect says she has dealt with much worse in her professional life than a joke Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister made about her fashion choices, but she feels compelled to call out his focus on her footwear over her work.

Pallister began his annual state-of-the-province speech Thursday by thanking Johanna Hurme, chairwoman of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce.

“I want to thank Johanna for dressing up,” he said to the audience. “I want to thank her for those heels. I notice they’re a foot high.”

He later said it was an awkward remark that was meant to be a humorous nod to his own towering height.

He also made reference to Hurme helping him with his food as his arm heals from a recent hiking injury.

Hurme said in a statement Friday that she doesn’t think Pallister’s comments were ill-intended and that the moment wasn’t that personally significant.

“The unfortunate reality is that I would not be in the position that I am in today, as an architect and as a business owner, should I not have dealt with much worse situations than this in the past,” she wrote.

But she said she couldn’t stay silent, given the national attention the comment received.

Before Pallister made his poorly received remark, Hurme had just finished a presentation on sprawl and the importance of dealing with the province’s infrastructure deficit.

“And while I believe the premier was attempting to acknowledge my presence in the room, he unfortunately chose to do so, not based on my work or content of that presentation, but rather make a joke about the fact I was wearing tall shoes,” she said.

“This, combined with the fact that the event took place in front of nearly 1,200 business leaders of our province, does require it to be called out and addressed.”

Hurme said she shared her thoughts frankly in a phone call with Pallister and he expressed his regrets.

Jocelyn Thorpe, an associate professor of women’s and gender studies at the University of Manitoba, said Pallister’s comments point to a broader problem.

“It’s harder for women to navigate the world as people with minds as well as with bodies,” she said.

“There’s a higher expectation that women put more effort into how they look. Men put on a suit and they’re dressed up, but women have many more steps that they’re expected to fulfil in terms of their hair and face and clothes.”

The senior curator at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto said Pallister focused on a garment that has for centuries been associated with what men find sexually desirable in women.

“High heels have become the icon of femininity,” said Elizabeth Semmelhack.

They were initially worn by men battling on horseback as far back as 10th-century Persia, but by 17th-century Europe they were fashionable for both genders.

They became narrower and higher for women to fit with the beauty standards at the time.

The more diminutive a woman was, the more attractive she was thought to be. The shoes angled a woman’s feet in such a way that all but the points of her toes were hidden by her skirts, making her appear smaller, said Semmelhack.

Sky-high shoes also played into the historical notion that men are inherently rational and women irrational.

“That has really stuck with us,” said Semmelhack.

She noted how modern women are often judged either for wearing sensible shoes that are seen as too dowdy or for teetering on stilettos seen as too sexy.

“(Pallister’s) comments are comments that have a very, very long-standing problematic connection to how women are assessed, that if they wear heels, that choice of footwear is irrational and at the same time, highly eroticized.”

– By Lauren Krugel in Calgary