The earliest occurrences of little old ladies in tennis shoes indicate that this U.S. phrase originally described female members of the John Birch Society, an organisation founded on Tuesday 9th December 1958, which advocates anti-communism and limited government.
According to an Associated-Press report first published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Santa Cruz, California) on Wednesday 2nd August 1961, the phrase was coined by Howard Jewel, Assistant Attorney General, Sacramento, California:
Birch Society Is Declared ‘Not Illegal’
Sacramento (AP)—California’s attorney general said today the right-wing John Birch Society is authoritarian, paranoiac and often ridiculous—but not illegal.
Atty. Gen. Stanley Mosk made his 15-page “personal observations” in answer to a query from Gov. Edmund G. Brown on whether the society is unlawful. The report was actually written by Asst. Atty. Gen. Howard Jewel.
“The cadre of the John Birch society seems to be formed primarily of wealthy businessmen, retired military officers and little old ladies in tennis shoes,” the report said.
“They are bound together by an obsessive fear of ‘communism,’ a word which they define to include any ideal differing from their own, even though these ideas may differ even more markedly with the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Khrushchev.”
The attorney general said he planned no formal investigation of the ultra-conservative society headed by Robert Welch, a retired Massachusetts candy maker.
“Such an investigation or official ruling on the society’s merits or demerits,” he said, “betokens an unfamiliarity with the United States Constitution.”
Urging Americans to study the Birch society and make up their own minds about it, Mosk said:
“The Birch society has an equal right with the Prohibitionists, the Vegetarians, the Republicans, the Democrats, or, for that matter, with any American, acting singly or in a group, to an expression of its views; and no official, no matter how highly placed, can say them nay.”
It was, however, to Stanley Mosk that the phrase little old ladies in tennis shoes was ascribed.
For example, this letter was published in The San Diego Union (San Diego, California) of Thursday 10th August 1961:
Little Old Ladies In Sneakers: Unite
EDITOR, THE UNION: Reference, The Union, Aug. 3, page a-11, comments made by Attorney general Mosk.
I do not belong to the John Birch Society. I am not a retired service man, a wealthy businessman, or a little old lady in tennis shoes, but I do have a soft spot in my heart for anybody who fights communism. And I do like little old ladies, with or without tennis shoes.
It seems to me, Mr. Mosk could use his time to better advantage than making unfavorable remarks about little old ladies in tennis shoes. These people he noted have a vote, I assume, and I hope they remember this article just in case Mr. Mosk should be on a ballot one day.
Published in the San Francisco Chronicle (San Francisco, California) of Thursday 10th August 1961, this unsigned article, describing the reactions of members of the John Birch Society to little old ladies in tennis shoes, confirms that the phrase was ascribed to Stanley Mosk:
Mosk ‘Flooded’ By Shoes, Sandals
Beach sandals and tennis shoes came showering down up on Attorney General Stanley Mosk yesterday—by mail—apparently in retaliation for his crack about the ultraconservative John Birch Society.
Last week Mosk’s office released a 15-page report that received nationwide attention. The report said that top Birchers seem to be “retired military officers, wealthy businessmen and little old ladies in tennis shoes.”
Yesterday a pair of rubber sandals with gold thongs arrived in a box postmarked Lancaster (Los Angeles county); a single tennis shoe arrived here from Fresno; and two pairs of tennis shoes were received in Mosk’s Sacramento office.
The beach sandals bore this anonymous note from their donor:
“The shoe doesn’t fit. At 23 years old I resent being called an old lady.”
Mosk, who was in Los Angeles yesterday on business, chuckled when he learned of the gift and declared:
“I understand that Birch Society cells are being instructed to send me tennis shoes. Since they so vigorously oppose foreign aid, we shall forward all shoes received to charitable agencies helping our needy anti-Communist friends overseas.
“I hope, however, the shoes will not be for the right foot only. We prefer well-balanced people, both at home and abroad.”
Later in the day a man’s tennis shoe, unwrapped, arrived here, addressed by a postcard tagged to the shoe. Postmarked Fresno, it bore this unsigned message:
“Sorry, Stanley: The shoes just don’t fit.”
Pat Frayne, the Attorney General’s press secretary, said that two pairs of tennis shoes had been received at Mosk’s office.
This photograph is from Birchers’ Reaction: Mosk ‘Flooded’ By Shoes, Sandals, published in the San Francisco Chronicle (San Francisco, California) of Thursday 10th August 1961:
BONNIE BROADSTREET AND SANDALS
Mosk’s secretary showed the package from Lancaster