I travel a lot for my job. I do at least one overseas trip each year and countless domestic ones. Conferences, meetings, interviews, and data collection are just some of the reasons I need to travel. And, being an academic, I’m always on a budget. So I fly economy, I stay in reasonably priced hotels, I use public transport or foot power whenever I can, and I buy my food from the supermarket not the mini bar.
My one travel indulgence is Qantas Club membership. When you travel as much as I do, access to a quiet room, a healthy meal, and a shower is the key to staying physically and mentally healthy on the road. So I consider my Qantas Club membership less of a luxury and more of an investment in my own wellbeing.
Last weekend, however, I was denied entry to the Qantas Club because of what I was wearing. Heading to Sydney I was dressed comfortably, but conservatively. Dark jeans, a tailored shirt, and a pair of black Birkenstocks. The only exposed skin was on my feet, hands, neck, and face. On my back I carried a grey felt knapsack.
The woman in front of me was wearing hot pink heels and a short dress that exposed her breasts, back, shoulders, arms, and legs. On her arm she carried a Louis Vuitton overnight bag. She was allowed in.
When I queried the decision, I was told that my Birkenstocks were too casual. The fact that I have been a paying member of the Qantas Club for more than five years was irrelevant. The fact that, overall, I was more conservatively dressed than the woman in front of me was also irrelevant. The decision was based entirely on my shoes. But here’s the thing: this is not a simple case of the wrong shoes. It’s a reflection of deeply held and seriously problematic views of gender and class, both at Qantas and in society more generally.
Feet have long been a feminist issue. From centuries of foot binding in China to the current Western penchant for stilettos, the footwear that society considers feminine has never been comfortable, safe, or health-promoting. In fact, feminist scholars would argue that throughout history footwear has been used to keep women vulnerable, to keep women in their place as sexual objects and subjects of the male gaze, and to restrict women’s options for work and play. As both a staunch feminist and someone who values her ankles, knees, and back, I only wear flat shoes. The last time I wore heels was at my sister’s wedding in 2010 and I took them off the first chance I got. From a feminist perspective, my footwear choices are a radical act. In flat shoes I am beyond the reach of the patriarchy. I can flee if I am attacked, my calves, backside, and breasts are not thrust out, and my options for work and play are unlimited. And, as a result, I am a threat. Because shoes, of course, are a gateway drug. It’s only a matter of time until a woman who is allowed to wear comfortable shoes will want other things – the right to vote, perhaps, or equal pay for equal work, or the right to choose if and when she has a baby. By admitting the woman in heels and ejecting me, the Qantas Club is promoting an emphasized femininity and hegemonic masculinity that flies in the face of everything thinking women have fought so hard to achieve. To further my point, after I complained about this incident on Twitter, a colleague sent me a link to the new Qantas dress code*. It turns out that not all Birkenstocks are banned. The style that has two straps over the top of the foot is allowed. The style that has a single strap between the toes is not. The former is worn predominantly by men, the latter by women.
As for class, Australia likes to think of itself as an egalitarian nation. The land of the fair go. But don’t be fooled. Australia definitely has a class system. It’s the land of us and them. And nowhere is this more apparent than in its national airline. A year’s Qantas Club membership costs $510, an amount that prohibits those in certain tax brackets from applying. Within the Club, the lounges are further segregated by social class, with separate lounges for those able to afford business or first class tickets. This is elitism at its finest. But the new dress code takes this one step further: judging people not just by their ability to pay for membership, but their ability to pay for a certain style of clothing. By making an arbitrary judgement about my shoes, Qantas was making a judgement about my social class and, by association, my value as a person.
What I would prefer is for Qantas to judge me on the contribution I make to the world. I spend my working life doing research on dementia, suicide, and homicide, collecting the evidence that’s required to create health systems, practices, and policies that will improve the experience and outcomes of people with dementia and their families. In my personal life I volunteer for an organization that provides books to people living in homeless shelters and I try to be a good sister, aunt, neighbor, and friend. To be clear, I’m not nominating myself for sainthood. I’m just suggesting that I make a meaningful contribution to the world. More meaningful, say, than the man who sits behind the Qantas Club reception desk deciding who can come in.
The Qantas Club of my dreams is a lovely place. A utopian airport lounge, filled with aid workers, teachers, writers, social workers, poets, environmental activists, musicians, artists, legal aid lawyers, and refugee advocates all putting their Birkenstock-clad feet up before they embark on their next journey to make the world a better place. A place where people – and particularly women – are judged on their merits, not their clothing or their bank balance.
*Qantas claim that the new dress code was requested by members and widely publicised. I am a member and I was neither consulted nor informed.