A common trope for the conservative sophist is to claim that all the miseries of modern life were absent in the Edenic golden past, and therefore a return to living in the manner of our ancestors (eg. women barefoot and pregnant),…[emphasis added]
– LP blogger Mercurius
The claim that conservatives want to keep women ‘barefoot and pregnant’ is a feminist-leftist cliche, but it is a rather puzzling charge. The pregnant part I understand; that it is women’s role to have and raise kids is a reasonable caricature of conservative views. But barefoot? Despite having spent much time in my 20s reading conservatives, I recall no passages on the dangerous properties of women’s footwear. (Indeed, it was the feminists themselves who turned women’s shoes into something of a political issue, and in my student politics days it was lefties who used to wander around barefoot.)
Nor do conservatives typically idealise an ‘Edenic golden age’ before the ‘miseries of modern life’. According to another leftist cliche, they want to take us back to the 1950s, which is well into the period of ‘modern life’. (And indeed it is leftists who who get taken in by ‘noble savage’ stories about an idyllic life before the corrupting materialism of modern life, and condemn conservatives for their lack of sympathy for traditional Aboriginal life, in which women really were barefoot.)
My many books of word and phrase origins fail to help explain ‘barefoot and pregnant’, but Wikipedia suggests that:
The phrase “barefoot and pregnant” was probably coined on August 27, 1963, by Rep. Paul Van Dalsem, an Arkansas state legislator. Van Dalsem, frustrated with the efforts of the Arkansas Division of the American Association of University Women, told a Little Rock civic club that in his home town that if a woman “starts poking around in something she doesn’t know anything about,” then “we get her pregnant and keep her barefoot.”
So perhaps the idea is that women can’t go out if they don’t have shoes, but it seems to be a rather eccentric idea to have taken off as symbolising conservative attitudes. Taking away their car keys might be a better method in 20th century America.
And if ‘barefoot and pregnant’ is indeed a relatively recent addition to political language, it is not likely to be one of the dead or near-dead metaphors and allusions found in various stock phrases, with ‘barefoot’ having now lost general connotations. If Mercurius had kept the cliches coming and said ‘gays and lesbians in the closet’, instead of ‘poofs and dykes silent and invisible’, the meaning of the phrase would have been clear, even if these days the metaphorical use of ‘closet’ is probably more common than the literal use. Some conservatives are uncomfortable about homosexuality.
But no conservative – other than perhaps Paul van Dalsem – seem to be uncomfortable about women’s shoes, or against women going out.
Any further sources on the origins of this phrase, and theories about why it appeals to anti-conservatives, are welcome.