‘Shoe Shine Gal’ calls women to break gender roles

Founder and CEO of Penny Loafers Shoe Shine Company, Penny Simmons speaks to guests at the Lillian H. Smith library to celebrate the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day. (Deeanna Charrion/Toronto Observer) (Deeanna Charrion/Toronto Observer)

Raised in a traditional family, Penny Simmons never dreamed of becoming the “Shoe Shine Gal”.

But, she says, a small bit of action can create a tidal wave behind you, even if you don’t know it at the time.

Simmons is the founder and CEO of Penny Loafers Shoe Shine Company. She shared her success story with 120 people at the Lillian H. Smith library March 8 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day.

Growing up, Simmons was pushed toward traditional options for jobs, like airline stewardess, hairdresser or a secretary, she said.

“I wanted to take shop,” she said. “I wanted to learn how to build things and make things. But at school, they said ‘No, you have to take home economics.

And while she loved cooking, she didn’t appreciate “the women’s role in the home” being taught. She left school and home at age 16.

“Until I started Penny Loafers, I just got by,” she said.

Now Simmons marvels at how her little downtown business — involving what’s customarily a man’s profession — has created 100 jobs and seen its employees polishing shoes for past prime ministers, business leaders to media and sports personalities.

“Becoming a valued member of a larger community has great benefits,” Simmons said. “For one you can start to build a golden reputation and that means a lot. You’re given countless opportunities not only for your benefit but for the benefit of others.”

The Hon. Jean Augustine, the first African-Canadian elected in the House of Commons and original Minister of State (Multiculturalism and Status of Women) was a keynote speaker. She echoed Penny’s sentiment that women choosing different roles than expected can help overcome inequality.

“A girl who can choose equality has a greater likelihood of becoming self-confident and aware of her full potential of being empowered to access education and to seek real opportunities that will contribute to successful life,” Augustine said.

While women have progressed greatly since the early 1900s, the former fairness commissioner said, girls cannot continue to be inferior to boys, which limits their potential.

“We’re well on the road to gender equality but we still have much more to do so we need people not to think that the battle has been won and that everything is accomplished,” Augustine said. “We need to recognize that there are still some challenges and we still need to keep up the activism.”