February 14th, 2006

In Search of Hinda Miller: The VDB Interview

by Philip Baruth

Campaign 2006: In Search of Hinda Miller
VDB Engages the Woman Behind the Myth

If Chittenden County State Senator Hinda Miller is a familiar face in Burlington, she is ubiquitous on the Internet. Miller’s role in the formation of Jogbra, Inc. — and the creation of its now-legendary product — has elevated her to near-cult status on sites that promote the empowerment of women.

All of these sites tell a thumbnail version of “The Jogbra Story,” the invention of the sport-top itself. Most of these accounts agree in substance, but some are notably at odds.

On a site promoting a seminar/book package called “Journey of the Night,” self-help author Ida Covi tells the Jogbra story this way: “In our conversation, Hinda shared that she developed the idea while out running on the back roads of Vermont. During her quiet running time, she was able to hear her creative moment of inspiration.”

But another site, Bellise.com, tells the story differently. In the Bellise version, Miller’s partner Lisa Lindahl conceives the product and yells, “That’s it!” when her husband jokingly puts a jockstrap over his head and around his chest. In this iteration, Miller appears a more minor figure, taking the prototype on a test run once it’s been sewn by her boss, costume designer Polly Smith.

Of course, myths of origin are notoriously fluid, rivaled only by political myths for their ability to change and grow in strength. In the case of Hinda Miller, though, the two are one in the same: the Jogbra myth has become foundational political myth, the source of her considerable strength at the ballot box.

Just weeks ago, Miller made a relatively late entry into the race for Burlington Mayor, ultimately besting Andy Montroll — a respected, long-time City Councilor — for the Democratic nomination. Miller’s caucus speech, not surprisingly, began with Jogbra. And so when I met Miller for this interview, I was curious to see how she views the myth-making process itself, and its obvious applications to politics.

After an unsuccessful attempt to use Uncommon Grounds as a Church Street venue, we wound up at the Border’s Café, huddled at a table in the dimly-lit balcony. Of necessity, we talked a great deal about bras and women’s undergarments, and people at surrounding tables occasionally shot us looks. Drifting up and over it all was the piercing pterodactyl-scream of the milk steamer, a scream that renders small portions of the miniature recording indecipherable.

* * *

VDB: So I wanted to start with the Jogbra story. Everything I’ve read about you flows from that point. And I think when you went into the [Democratic] caucus, or even into the first State Senate race, that was the key to success in some way: voters can form an emotional tie to that, and everyone loves the story of an invention.

So I’m wondering if we can treat it for a second as a story or in this case as myth — as political myth. Do you think the story since it happened — and as it’s been told so many times by so many people — has changed? Has it become slightly simpler than the original version?

Miller: You mean the original experience of what it is?

VDB: Yeah.

Miller: Well, Jogbra for me is a twenty-year story. There are a lot of cycles in the Jogbra story, and I personally haven’t really sat down to look at that but it’s important to look at the cycles of the story. The first cycle was two young women coming together, not really knowing each other but enthused about the idea of creating a bra for women since we were both running at the time. There was a third woman, Polly Smith, and the story of the invention was that it was Lisa’s idea, and she and Polly put together —

VDB: Now, do you mean the story of the invention was Lisa’s idea, or the invention itself was?

Miller: Sorry, the idea — Why isn’t there a bra for women runners — the idea was her idea. And the invention happened when they were all together and her husband got a jock strap and put it to his breast and said, “Look, Jockbra.” And that was the idea.

VDB: Jockbra?

Miller: Jockbra. And in fact our first product was called Jockbra. But I think I’ll segue to that. So that was the idea. And I went to the University bookstore, got two jockstraps and Polly sewed them together. Lisa and I —

VDB: University of Vermont bookstore?

Miller: UVM bookstore. I was a UVM costume designer for the summer, at the Lake Champlain Shakespeare Festival. And Polly was my boss, and Lisa was a friend of Polly’s. So there were three women that came together. Lisa and I were enthusiastic because we were medium-sized women — Polly had no breasts so she couldn’t relate and she didn’t run — but Lisa and I could relate. We had the same body structure, our breasts were large enough to be in the way and uncomfortable. And psychologically, you know, we were getting jeered at and everything else by men. So psychologically we wanted to have more safety around what we were doing.

So that was the idea. We did a prototype; Lisa put it on, we went around the track, it seemed to work, and what we discovered was these sport tops — small, medium and large, over the head, no hardware, nothing to dig into the skin.

And I was a designer, Polly was a designer, and we understood design criteria. And the design criteria was that there would be no seams that rubbed against the body because we saw bleeding nipples when women ran, from the friction. All the seams would be to the outside of the garment. So the first Jogbra was, you know, it looked like it was inside out. And we were very proud to say that it was “Form follows function.”

And we were, you know, in that feminist mode — where we’re going to decide what to do with our breasts —

VDB: It’s 1977, right?

Miller: Right, 1977. She was getting divorced, I wasn’t married. But then I took that prototype down to South Carolina. I was an Assistant Professor at the University of South Carolina. And my family loaned us $5,000, and we made forty dozen bras, and I found a factory — it wasn’t a factory, it was like a trailer, with one woman who had retired from the sewing factory and she wanted to start her own business.

And then we had forty dozen bras, and we were in South Carolina, and it was called Jockbra. But I brought it to a store and a woman said, you know women who run down here, they don’t consider themselves jocks.

So I called up Lisa and said what are we going to do. And I can’t remember who came up with it, but it became Jogbra which was a great name because it translated in all kinds of languages, which helped when we went to Europe. It was a fantastic name.

VDB: It’s funny to hear that because, like I say, the story has been diffused incredibly widely at this point — I’ve read it about six thousand times on the Internet, in different forms. Like the invention of the telephone; there’s a little myth that goes along with it, and it gets reduced. And in this case, what everyone seems to have in common, what everyone seems to love is the idea that it was two jockstraps, that it came from something male originally —

Miller: It did.

VDB: I mean, there’s something biblical about that. It’s almost like the rib, you know what I mean?

Miller: It’s true! I never thought of it that way. That’s great.

VDB: I wanted to just follow up a bit. You were talking about it being a feminist moment, and definitely that’s how it plays, that’s how we remember it. But the singlemost surprising thing that I found in trying to research the story was that there was a tradeshow at one point where you had a Playboy bunny —

Miller: We did.

VDB: — and that that was the takeoff point, that you got five hundred thousand orders or something? Fifty thousand orders?

Miller: Yeah, when we went to the tradeshow, we didn’t have anything — we didn’t have a booth or anything, so we put together something with an old coat rack, and we strung some canvas. And the only press we had had so far was a Playboy bunny — somehow this sportswriter in New York found our two dozen bras in Athlete’s Foot and put it on a Playboy bunny and had a picture of that.

So that’s the only picture we had, so we blew that up, and I guess that was a little sensational. But that’s what brought people to the booth.

And that number was the first year of sales, half a million dollars worth of bras. So you have to believe the need was there. We were blessed to channel that product at the right time. It was naively perfect.

VDB: There was one website I saw on major inventions of the twentieth century. And they listed the Phillip’s Head screwdriver, and under that was Jogbra.

Miller: Perfect. So you know it’s in the Smithsonian Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum?

VDB: I do. Is the one that’s in the Smithsonian the actual first prototype?

Miller: It’s not the jockstraps sewn together. It’s one of the first manufactured Jogbras.

VDB: Do you still have the prototype?

Miller: I have one of the first Jogbras. I don’t have the initial first jockstraps that were sewn together. I mean, I could go and buy two jockstraps and sew them together and show you how we did it —

VDB: [Putting up a hand] That’s okay.

Miller: But I don’t have that original thing. Because who knew? But the reason it’s in the metropolitan museum, is that I have a Master’s in costume design and we used to go up to the Metropolitan and sketch underwear — farthingales and bustles and all that stuff. And we talked a lot about the social, economic and political status of women, and when we designed the sports bra, it was clearly an historic important icon. So that’s the myth.

VDB: [Clearly pleased to have something to contribute to the technical discussion] You were talking about farthingales [a set of collapsible hoops worn under the skirt]. I’m writing a novel set in the eighteenth-century, and I just wrote a scene that pivots around a woman wearing a farthingale, because suddenly she can go through the door without turning sideways, because of the collapsible sides. Suddenly she’s mobile.

Miller: Oh, that’s great.

VDB: The reason I wanted to talk about this is to go to the [Democratic] Caucus, which was held last month. It seemed to me that your greatest strength when you came in as a candidate was the aura you brought with you. In other words, having begun this iconic company, having created so many jobs in Vermont, etc. That aura comes into the room with you.

[Waits out a pterodactyl-scream from the coffee steamer] So I just wanted to get your impression of it because I wrote a long post about the caucus, and what struck me was the divided nature of the room from the get-go. And then something happened, it seemed, during the caucus and it wound up in your favor. From your point of view, how did it seem? Maybe you could talk about Madeleine [Kunin, Vermont’s first woman governor]. Do you think she was important?

Miller: Madeleine was very important for me personally, but I think she was also a very important messenger for women. I think what’s interesting now is, does it matter if you’re a woman? There’s something about women still — not as ardent and militant as we were in the ‘70’s, but there’s something about the possibilities for women.

And the thing that Madeleine said that I heard some people change their votes on is when she said, “This is a woman who will lead with her heart and her head.” And I said that as well. I didn’t know that she was going to say this; I had no idea. And then I heard two people comment, a woman said, “You know what? I think we should have someone with heart in our government, and I think I’m going to change my vote.” So for me, that was the biggest highlight.

And that’s how I’ve developed as a person. You know, I’ve done yoga for thirty years, and I’ve taught yoga in prisons. So I just totally believe that there’s something so beyond what we see. And in fact that’s one of the reasons why I’m running. I want to see if I can do yoga off the mat well. [Laughs] That’s very challenging.

VDB: Yoga meets City Hall.

Miller: I can say that to you, I can’t say that to everyone because people in the North End — your end of the North End — would think I’m weird. But for your audience — I just feel like I can serve not only with my experiences, but I can serve with my practice. I try to stay away from the drama, and the chatter. I understand the importance of focus, and not getting caught up. I’ve always wanted to believe that I could be with anyone, I could go from burlap to diamonds. I pride myself on that, and sometimes I test myself. And I’m being tested now, because people have these ideas about who I am —

VDB: And everyone wants you to be accessible to them when they walk up on the street.

Miller: Right. But it’s more than that: you know, people love success, but they hate success in a way.

VDB: If I can, let me go back to the heart part.

Miller: The what?

VDB: Leading with your heart. And this connects for me with the part that some of the Progressives played in your campaign during the run-up to the Caucus. And I’m thinking here of [Progressive] Jane Knodell. Jane Knodell said something to the effect of, If I like the [Democrat], and if I think that candidate is going in the right direction, then I won’t run as a Progressive. Now I took her at the time to be saying that if the candidate was close to her ideologically speaking, she wouldn’t run.

At first blush you would seem to be a candidate not extremely close to the views of the Progressive party, because of the business emphasis, now and in what you’ve done in the past. And yet, very clearly, you were the resounding choice of many Progressives, not just Jane, but Peter Clavelle endorsed you as well. How did you develop such a strong connection to the Progressive party? Because it seems a good model for Democrats citywide, in terms of avoiding divisive three-way races.

Miller: I don’t know, Phil, I don’t know anything about this kind of thing. What I think of, in my world view, is that job creation is the best thing you can do for anyone. Jane also feels this way, and Peter is a very good economic development person. So I know Republican business-style has a very bad name. But my experience with business is with socially responsible companies, Lisa and I building a culture that supported our employees, doing the best we could because we were earnest compassionate women. We did the best we could as young people; we were twenty-seven, twenty-eight, so we were learning as we grew.

Now Jane and I came together — and Peter — because we’re very clear that the long-term sustainability of this city has to do with jobs, housing, and tax base. I don’t know, there’s a lot of chemistry involved in relationships, and [Jane] and I didn’t know each other. I’d seen her across the yoga room for a while —

VDB: So there was that.

Miller: There was that. And then Peter Welch knows me well, and he knows Jane well, and I asked him to speak to Jane about me. He was also surprised that I was easy to work with [laughing]. You know, people have this idea about business which —

VDB: That’s the aura again. It’s a double-edged sword. You think of a CEO-type as someone who will be unapproachable or bottom-line in their orientation —

Miller: Bottom-line? I mean, bottom line makes a thing work. Look, I’m a person of the sixties, for God’s sake. I was an activist against the war —

VDB: And a costume designer.

Miller: And a costume designer, an artist. I had dreams of being a famous costume designer. You know how John Lennon says life happens when you’re out making other plans? When this Jogbra thing happened, I had this feeling in my belly, that I was absolutely passionate about bringing this product to women. I was young, and I wasn’t married. I had no responsibilities, except to the kind of job I was doing.

So you know . . . Ghandi has this thing called satyagraha, which is insistence on the truth. So I am very good at catching people not dealing with me well — I did that twice this week.

VDB: Catching people who aren’t dealing with you well?

Miller: Yeah. Not being honest with me. You know, why didn’t you talk to me about this? Or I went up to someone and I said, “You don’t like me, do you?” and he said no. So I said, “Why?” And he said I was a [struggles to remember the words] “a puppet of the Chamber of Commerce.” And I said, “Well, you don’t even know who I am.” And he said, “You’re right — that’s fair.” And I said “That’s good, because every time I come around you I have to feel really uncomfortable, and I’m a good person.” And he said, “Well okay, you’re right.”

So it’s all about relationships. And it’s all about — it’s so human! — not taking things personally, assume good intentions. I always assume good intentions. Like with Andy [Montroll], when that whole thing was blown out of proportion. I think the guy just couldn’t get beyond [the caucus vote], and the papers called him and caught that, and he just didn’t have the good sense to hang up on them.

VDB: Let me go to something else that you are wont to say in your interviews. On a website called GirlZone, you say, “When you go into a new situation you have to know the rules to be successful.” Now, Instant Runoff Voting is getting underway in this election, a whole new world, a whole new set of rules, perhaps unknowable rules. I imagine you’ve sat down with a lot of people, and you’re probably a good person to ask. How are you preparing for IRV?

Miller: You know, for me personally I’ve decided I’m working 110% on doing my work. And no one really knows how IRV will work out. It’s how people vote, the motivation for voting. Are they going to vote for the best person for the job as they see it? Are they going to vote party politics? Are they going to vote to do someone in? I don’t know.

I believe every organization has cycles, and you need different leaders for different cycles. And when I looked at Burlington, I said this is good for what I can give.

VDB: Let’s go back to what you said about assuming good intentions. If we assume that your average voter has good intentions, it has seemed to me in thinking about it that as a candidate you’re perfectly positioned for IRV. You’re a very centrist candidate; you can reach out to Progressives, and you can reach out to Republicans. So assuming you make it to the second round, you seem like an excellent bet to win under that system. Are you and the people you’re working with on the campaign trying to do anything to maximize those chances?

Miller: I don’t think anybody’s figured out a way to do it. I mean, what do you say, vote for Hinda Miller second? You can’t do that.

VDB: But one thing I have noticed is that Kevin Curley [the Republican candidate], who is ordinarily a very hard-charging candidate, has been notably mellow in his campaigning. He’s commended Jane Knodell for instance for her work on the City Council, and that seems to me a part of a different sort of strategy that IRV brings in, which is —

Miller: Civility?

VDB: Civility.

Miller: That’s fabulous. But I’m a different kind of candidate. I’ve never liked labels; I’m not a career political person. And because I’ve been so blessed with my yoga, my Chamber of Commerce, my business, my work in the Senate, I can relate to and have credibility with a lot of different kinds of people.

And that makes it all the more interesting for me as a person, to say, What kind of people will step up and work with me? We need everybody. We need the economic development Republicans, we need the people who understand how to deal with low- and moderate-income people. Because the deal is that unless we can lay a strong claim to being the economic, political and social hub of Vermont, we will slide into urban decay.

And, you know, we’re on the edge. Peter [Clavelle] has done a good job with sustainability, and we have all of these great institutions, we all live here and work here. But the reality is that our expenses are outstripping our means.

VDB: That’s where I wanted to go next — the pension plan, and the underfunding issue. I know every mayoral candidate agrees that it’s a serious problem and it has to be dealt with. Can you offer any specifics?

Miller: Look, this retirement issue is not only about Burlington, Vermont. It’s at the Vermont state level, and our state teachers’ retirement fund is underfunded. And it’s the same thing nationally. So there’s that. The responsibility, though, is in three places. One, make sure the retirement fund gets the highest return that it can, and we have to look at the Board, and really look at how the fund is being invested. Number two, employees are going to have to contribute something. And taxpayers are going to have to contribute something.

VDB: By contributions from taxpayers, are you referring to the proposed local-option tax?

Miller: Well, whatever it is. I do support the local-option tax. I think that we have no way to maintain our taxes and to keep our taxes in the city, so I’m in favor of that one percent tax. And the flip-side is that quality of life is one of the most important issues for our city, and why people want to live here. We’ve done good work with local policing, and we need good benefits for recruitment and retention. And it seems that the police leave for better jobs.

This is all about balance. I can come to my yoga mat, and some days you have a balanced posture and you’re really there for two minutes, and some days you can’t balance at all. So this new mayor, it will all be about balancing different priorities.

VDB: One of the problems the city has politically is that the end of town where I live represents a very, very vocal “no vote” on things like the school budget, and I would imagine something like the local option tax. Already Republican candidates out our way are campaigning on a single, two-word message: lower taxes.

Miller: Lower taxes?

VDB: Yeah, cut the existing tax burden, is their pitch. Kevin Curley will no doubt run in just this way. How will you explain your concept of balance without falling into the trap of their saying, Look, this is tax-and-spend Liberalism?

Miller: A good question. [Prolonged, sustained pterodactyl-screech from milk-steamer in Border’s Café below renders four or five sentences indecipherable.] The bottom line now is effective and accountable city government. We’ve got to look at each department, we’ve got to prioritize what we do. We’ve got to make sure that what we’re doing is what we want to do, and let go of those things we can’t afford to do any longer. So that’s a difficult conversation to have to have.

In my first hundred days, I’m going to go through each department, look at what each is doing, find out which people it serves and what it costs, and I’m going to make recommendations around some changes.

VDB: Bob Kiss [the Progressive candidate] is proposing a board to study other options besides the property tax, the heavy burden of the property tax.

Miller: Yeah, but you know, that’s okay to do, and I will be bringing a Citizen’s Task Force together but we’ve got to increase revenues. Which means we’ve got to make this a place where people will want to come and create their jobs, and you know me — I love entrepreneurs and start-ups. We have a confluence of possible leadership now, at UVM and the Center for Emerging Technologies. In the Senate, my thing has been economic development and the creative economy. So I got money allocated to the Center for Emerging Technologies. UVM has a significant amount of research money coming in now, they just got 17 million dollars from the transportation budget, which they’re going to match for 34 million for sustainable technologies.

That’s huge. I don’t want any of those young entrepreneurs or businesses to leave. When they’re finished [at UVM], I want to knock on the door and say, “We’ve got inexpensive incubator space, we’ve got places for you to live.” There’s Pine Street and that. But for me, this is about developing our assets.

First, we’ve got to look at the water front to see how — it’s an underdeveloped area, and possibly we’ve got to see how we do sustainable development, how does it financially sustain itself.

VDB: Specifically with the waterfront — because for many voters that’s the most important single issue — what do you imagine at this point, in terms of development? Are you talking about the North 40?

Miller: The North 40 was put into urban reserve for the new generation, and I think the new generation has happened. So we need to really talk about the North 40. And we need to talk about the structure — it’s very exciting. From my design background, it’s incredibly exciting to think about what that might be.

So we need to have conversations, we need to look at how to create the infrastructure. How do you get in and out of there? What goes in? It can mean housing, I believe, it can be businesses, restaurants. It can be museums, all that stuff. We also have, south of the ferry, we also have those railroad yards, and that’s all zoned commercial. It’s fourteen acres but it’s taken up by rail yards. Now, in the [Statewide] transportation budget there’s money to talk about the movement of rail yards; Rutland has a plan to move their rail yards out.

VDB: That makes perfect sense to me, the south of the ferry part. The North 40, though, seems to me a huge political lift. When you think about what happened with the Moran Plant, what you had was a coalition that developed between those who don’t want development at all and those who felt that that particular project was elitist in some way — because the YMCA was a membership-driven organization. Is it possible to get the city to accept development of the North 40?

Miller: I don’t know, and I don’t know if it should be developed. Even if you have park plans, you have to have infrastructure, people have to be able to get there. I’m not saying that it has to be developed.

I think we have to develop much better creative visuals about possibilities, as well as the financial underpinnings. For instance, we didn’t even know how much it cost to keep the Moran up, how much it would cost to take it down. It’s okay to ask if you want the Moran plant up or down, but if you don’t know the use it will be put to, then I don’t get it. It’s like building a room of a house when you don’t have the plan of the house.

VDB: So you’ll have a lot of information coming in on the Moran site this town meeting day.

Miller: Right, we’ll have a lot of information coming in, and then we still have to look at — you know, what’s interesting and what we already have are the values. It should be used for the public. It shouldn’t interfere with the ecological health of the lake. It should be financially sound. I can’t remember what the fourth was but those are sort of the foundation, and that’s a good thing.

We know that. We’ve started public discussion but the next stage is the challenging one: who’s around the table. How do you have public engagement, how do you strategize, how do you prioritize, how do you execute and how do you hold people accountable? That’s the full cycle, and that excites me.

In terms of the Moran plant, we haven’t seen enough. I’d like to see a year-round Farmer’s Market, I’d like to bring the Chew-Chew inside. Or the building could be open, so you could see the lake. The fact that we already have a structure that has such an intimate connection with the lake is really interesting. I just don’t think we engaged our citizens with the creative visuals and the possibilities.

So we’re just at the very beginning of the process. So please don’t think that I’m developing the North 40; I’m not developing the North 40.

VDB: Fair enough. One more question along those lines. It seems to me that any mayor of Burlington worth their salt has a plan for the Old North End. Now, one of the things that people out in the North End liked about the Progressives is that the party spoke to them, to their needs. And I’m wondering if you’ve thought about what should happen there once you get people around the table, as you say?

Are you actively going to pursue plans to make the lives of people in the Old North End better and increase their quality of life?

Miller: City Hall has to think about and care for everyone. And the Old North End was our original commercial area, where the immigrants came. I think the Revitalization Project has been a fantastic start. But look also at the institutions there: the Multi-Gen, the Community Health Center, the Boys and Girls Club, the investment that’s being made in that neighborhood, plus the revitalization project — I see [Church Street] and this downtown moving up North Street and onto the Lake. We’ve got to expand our downtown anyway. The housing stock has to be revamped, it’s very old.

And Burlington Telecom’s going to be a gift for this whole city. We started in the South End, we’re going to go to the New North End, then we’re going to connect the Old North End. We have such a diverse community.

VDB: I sense our time is running out. Last question. On the site, I’ve made the following prediction: “Sacrificial lamb Kiss led to slaughter in the first IRV round; Kevin Curley crushed like a June bug in the second; Miller romps.” Question being: Will you make a liar out of VDB?

Miller: [Looking somewhat sickened by the violent metaphors, then managing a smile] You know, I think you’re right on. You’re like a seer. You see the future.