From foot binding to natural childbirth; teaching women their value resides in their pain

Lady in her garden, from Chinese ornaments 1883

The history of foot binding is a history of women’s pain.

According to Amanda Foreman, writing for Smithsonian Magazine:

A small foot in China, no different from a tiny waist in Victorian England, represented the height of female refinement. For families with marriageable daughters, foot size translated into its own form of currency and a means of achieving upward mobility. The most desirable bride possessed a three-inch foot, known as a “golden lotus.” It was respectable to have four-inch feet—a silver lotus—but feet five inches or longer were dismissed as iron lotuses. The marriage prospects for such a girl were dim indeed.

Descriptions of the practice make for chilling reading.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Elite women in industrialized countries no longer believe that their value lie in the pain of foot binding. Instead they believe that their value lies in the pain of childbirth.[/pullquote]

Beginning when a girl was between 5 and 6 years old:

…[T]he feet were massaged and oiled before all the toes, except the big toes, were broken and bound flat against the sole, making a triangle shape. Next, her arch was strained as the foot was bent double. Finally, the feet were bound in place using a silk strip measuring ten feet long and two inches wide. These wrappings were briefly removed every two days to prevent blood and pus from infecting the foot. Sometimes “excess” flesh was cut away or encouraged to rot. The girls were forced to walk long distances in order to hasten the breaking of their arches. Over time the wrappings became tighter and the shoes smaller as the heel and sole were crushed together…

Despite the appalling pain, millions of Chinese women perpetuated the tradition for a thousand years. They believed a woman’s worth was in the pain she was willing to endure to achieve tiny feet. Or to put a modern spin on in, Chinese women were “empowered” by foot binding. Using today’s language, they might have claimed that the choice of foot binding, undertaken solely at the discretion of and under the control of women, was a feminist choice.

Consider the story of Wang Lifen.

Footbinding was first banned in 1912, but some continued binding their feet in secret…

Wang Lifen was just 7 years old when her mother started binding her feet: breaking her toes and binding them underneath the sole of the foot with bandages. After her mother died, Wang carried on, breaking the arch of her own foot to force her toes and heel ever closer…

“Because I bound my own feet, I could manipulate them more gently until the bones were broken. Young bones are soft, and break more easily,” she says.

At that time, bound feet were a status symbol, the only way for a woman to marry into money.

But we know better, right? We understand that the practice of foot binding was a way to subjugate women, forcing them to endure excruciating pain in the short term and appalling disability for the rest of their lives.

Fortunately, elite women in industrialized countries no longer believe that their value resides in the pain of foot binding. Instead they believe that their value resides in the pain of childbirth. Indeed, they claim to be “empowered” by the pain and some even insist that the choice to endure excruciating pain in labor is a feminist choice.

I imagine that any natural childbirth advocates who have read this far are incensed by the comparison, but what’s the difference?

The philosophy of natural childbirth, promulgated by obstetrician Grantly Dick-Read in the 1930s, was expressly created to subjugate women. He was trying to convince middle and upper class women that childbirth pain is in their minds, thereby encouraging them to have more children. Read’s central claim was that “primitive” women do not have pain in childbirth. In contrast, women of the upper classes were “overcivilized” and had been socialized to believe that childbirth is painful.

He famously said:

The mother is the factory, and by education and care she can be made more efficient in the art of motherhood.

Grantly Dick-Read’s theory of natural childbirth grew out of his belief in eugenics. He was concerned that “inferior” people were having more children than their “betters” portending “race suicide” of the white middle and upper classes. Read believed that women’s emancipation led them away from the natural profession of motherhood toward totally unsuitable activities. Since their fear of pain in childbirth might also be discouraging them, so they must be taught that the pain was due to their false cultural beliefs. In this way, women could be educated to have more children.

According to Read:

Woman fails when she ceases to desire the children for which she was primarily made. Her true emancipation lies in freedom to fulfil her biological purposes.

Dick-Read would be delighted that his philosophy — women are meant to suffer and are improved by suffering — has been embraced as empowering and a feminist choice.

But wait! Unmedicated childbirth is natural while foot binding is unnatural. That may be true, but the meaning ascribed to each is entirely cultural. There are many different types of natural pain that we do not consider empowering and many types of unnatural pain (think marathons and mountain climbing) that elicit admiration. The insistence that the pain of childbirth is empowering and the decision to refuse pain relief or standard medical care is a feminist choice are cultural beliefs.

But wait! Anything that woman chooses deliberately must be a feminist choice, right?

Wrong. Unfortunately women are often the most enthusiastic enforcers of patriarchal values. Consider female genital mutilation. It is a practice designed by men, for men, to preserve men’s privileges, but it is performed exclusively by older women on female children in order to make their bodies “respectable” for men.

But wait! Foot binding left women with permanent disabilities while natural childbirth does not. Really? The disabilities caused naturally by childbirth — incontinence, prolapse, sexual dysfunction — are less visible than the tottering walk of women whose feet were bound, but every bit as life limiting if not more so.

The bottom line is that foot binding, female genital mutilation and natural childbirth are forms of social currency. Within the societies that promote them, bound feet were considered “beautiful,” mutilated female genitals are considered “clean” and unmedicated vaginal birth is touted as empowering. That doesn’t change the fact that all reflect the belief that a woman’s value resides in her suffering.

Just as there is nothing feminist or empowering about foot binding or genital mutilation, there is nothing feminist or empowering about unmedicated vaginal birth — regardless of how many women insist there is, promote it or choose it for themselves.