For a woman in China in most of the second millenium C.E., the bound foot–in several different styles varying with time, but most enduringly the tiniest and most injurious “golden lotus” foot–was the price of entry to upper-class womanhood, and a possible ticket to social mobility for the lower classes. With the exception of the Manchu, who forbade the practice, the idea spread and became more and more de rigeur for Chinese women to inflict on their daughters, typically in the name of ensuring better marriage matches.
A woman with unbound feet, by the 19th century, was unlikely to thrive in court society, or even to be a successful dancer or performer. She had greater freedom to walk, yes, but society constrained her role to that of a servant, a laborer. To leave a daughter’s feet unbound was perceived as an act not of mercy, but of short-sightedness, letting sentimentalism get in the way of practicality.
Half the women in China walked with great pain on lotus feet by 1800. Thus, there were two groups, of about equal number: women with bound feet, and women with unbound feet. The prevalence of footbinding among the upper class Han women approached 100 percent.
Because the practice did not die out until the Communist Revolution in China, first-person accounts of what it was like to have one’s toes crushed by the footbinding process are still coming out in interviews today. In 1995, Pamela Cooper interviewed a Mrs. Huang, who told this story of her own binding:
I remember the day the footbinding began. My mother told me that I could not be beautiful if I did not have bound feet. Ugly girls couldn’t marry. The binding of my feet began when I was five years old. I hated it. I cried. It was so very, very painful. No matter how much I cried or begged, my mother never relented. If I loosened the bandages at night, my mother would beat me in the morning and bind the feet even tighter. So, what could I do? Nothing. So, my feet were bound. I remember the first time my mother unwrapped them. They were rotting. They smelled very bad and were full of pus.
At the same time, the women in Cooper’s first-person accounts are quick to reflect on the fact that in many ways, their status was changed for the better by the destruction and warping of their young metatarsals, the rotted toenails.
It hurt so badly, I cried, and there was nothing to do for the pain. If I didn’t bind my feet, I would have to go to work in the fields, and that would have been hard. So, footbinding was better than that.
Another woman reflects on the same labor bargain:
It was an honor to have bound feet. All you could do was sit all day and make bound feet shoes. Servants did everything for you.
The unbinding of feet in the twentieth century undid the labor bargain:
I was happy to unbind my feet. My husband was happy too because I could work more in the fields. Prior to the unbinding I stayed at home and sewed, cooked, took care of the children and did housework.
One of the things these first-person accounts have in common is that the women involved say very little discussion of the practice of footbinding ever occurred, except between mothers and daughters. This deeply traumatic event, shared by millions of women, was considered so private that it was rarely, if ever, talked about–even with spouses or the most intimate friends.
But what if the women of China had begun to discuss the practice centuries ago? Moreover–since we’re already in the land of hypotheticals–what if they had done so through the lens of “privilege” discourse?
Well, it would be easy for the women with unbound feet to conclude, from the narratives above, that women whose feet were bound experienced what could be described as “bound-foot privilege.” After all, women with lotus feet did significantly less manual labor and were often waited upon by servants. They secured better marriage matches. They were elevated above the common woman.
However, the women with bound feet–who had little or no say in whether they were bound, and whose say would have meant nothing anyhow because they were little children when the process began–could as easily have discussed the privilege of being born with unbound feet. To be able to walk free, to be able to leave one’s home or relationship by simply walking away, was beyond the woman with bound feet. She was hobbled, forced to inhabit a tiny world close to home. She was in pain when she walked even a short distance, and prone to all the ailments an enforced lack of exercise can lead to.
Which, then, of these groups could be said to be privileged over the other?
The answer should be immediately obvious, but if it is not:
Neither of them.
These groups of women are divided by a destructive beauty practice that was created to eroticize the female body while hobbling it, for the benefit not of other women, but of men. Neither side of the divide enjoys privileges, because the divide was created by an outside oppressor group in order to create pressures on women of either footbinding status.
Would it have benefited either group–the bound, or the unbound–to call the other group “privileged” for their footbinding status? Would fighting each other for who had it worst, whose plight was harder, be likely to improve their conditions? Or would they have been better off trying to attack the root of the problem: a male culture that eroticized hobbled, deformed women, leaving them a choice between deformity and poverty?
So it goes with motherhood. In recent weeks, some feminist discourse online has revolved around whether such a thing as “motherhood privilege” exists. Some say yes, others say no, others say “NO” more vehemently, even claiming that if anything, there is privilege in not being a mother–lower domestic violence victimization rates and higher salaries, for instance.
This is footbinding privilege. This is a failure to see the overarching system dividing and conquering.
Motherhood’s supposed “privileges,” as well as non-motherhood’s, are determined not by women, but by men. What woman would devise the system in place now, wherein all the caretaking labor and time required to grow a human being into some semblance of self-sufficiency is considered outside of the economic sphere? It is not the group of women who bear children who controls the fact that men often won’t consider a childfree partner for dating. It is not the group of women who do not bear children who controls the fact that men commit more violence against mothers.
These groups of women are both oppressed by a common oppressor. The “privilege” conferred by motherhood is similar to the “privilege” conferred by beauty: decided at the whim of men and easily taken away to suit other divisive political goals. Black mothers, for instance, don’t get a lot of the sympathy and apple-pie Americana benefits a lot of feminists in these discussions associated with motherhood. They often get side-eye and people looking really close at what they’re paying with when they go to the grocery store. No matter what your race, one day, your features can be considered beautiful, but the next, standards change and your type isn’t “in” any more. Aging out of the beauty pool is, as many women have noted, a mixed blessing–invisibility has both benefits and drawbacks when visibility is synonymous with harassment.
We did not make the world the way that it is. But we must see it the way that it is, if we are to take it back.
There is only such a thing as motherhood privilege if there is such a thing as footbinding privilege–or, for that matter, female genital mutilation privilege (also a practice performed to secure economically advantageous marriages). Women did not create these divides. Women did not decide that mothers should make less, or that non-mothers should be viewed as less desirable or as “incomplete” women in any way.
This is how patriarchy works: by telling you that you really must do certain things to fit in, to be good enough, to be worthwhile, to gain the best benefits society has to offer. But in order to do them, you must risk injury or even death. Whether we’re talking about motherhood, footbinding, maintaining underweight physiques, or plastic surgery, risking lethality seems to be a necessary component for women to reap supposed “benefits” out of patriarchy. You can have the finest crumbs from the master’s table, but only if you hurt yourself for his amusement first–and do so better than all the other women vying for the same few crumbs.
I implore my feminist friends: Stop fighting for scraps when the whole table stands above you. Stop wielding privilege rhetoric against other women without asking the question: where is the oppression coming from, and who decided that your group of women should be treated in the way that they are? You’ll be surprised how rarely the answer to these questions is actually “other women in that other group.”
If the answer is “men,” don’t we have better things we could be doing?