My great-grandmother was renowned for her beauty, owing in no small part to her three and a half-inch tiny bound feet. Back then, foot binding was an essential right-of-passage in China. Girls weren’t considered suitable for marriage without bound feet. Poor families needed their daughters to work and were not able to bind their feet until they were older. You could often discern the status of a woman by looking at her feet.
My mother displayed a pair of her grandmother’s intricately-embroidered tiny shoes in our house where I grew up. Even though my mother was a scientist with graduate degrees, some ingrained cultural pride remained in her over those miniature shoes.
Footbinding in China was practiced on girls as young as three if you were “lucky” enough to be part of the upper class. The child’s toes were tucked back underneath the sole and tightly wrapped with bandages. Bones broke as the child’s feet were forced to grow unnaturally backward.
The ultimate goal was to deform the female foot into the shape of a “lotus flower”, which was considered the ideal of female desirability. No one cared about the potential health issues that could include paralysis, gangrene, infection, or even death. Male erotic obsession with foot-binding as a symbol of a woman’s submission kept the abusive practice alive for 900 years and even into the latter half of the 20th century.
My mother told me stories about the practice with a mixture of awe and pride. They left an impression on me the same way we tell parables like “stone soup” to teach our children about cooperation.
Stories of my paternal great-grandmother also made an impression. Her husband was a warlord and a close associate of Chiang Kai-Shek, the first president of the Republic of China. In exchange for leading several successful attacks (and probably raping and pillaging along the way), Chiang Kai-Shek rewarded my great-grandfather with the position of head of the electric company for all of China. As a wealthy man, he was entitled to as many wives and concubines as he cared to afford because in those days women were viewed as a commodity rather than a companion.
My great-grandmother was “Second Wife.” My great-grandfather had become dissatisfied with his first wife, who failed to have any children. He met Second Wife in an upscale “teahouse”, where elegant courtesans provided “entertainment” of all kinds. Supposedly, my great-grandmother was a “maid” in the teahouse, but I suspect this was a euphemism. Because my great-grandmother only gave her husband two daughters, he moved on to a third wife to meet his needs.
When my grandmother died at 102, a modern version of the story was set in motion. My grandparents had three children: my father, another son, and a daughter. Drawing upon their traditional Chinese values, they left 40% of their estate to each of their sons and 20% to their daughter. It was explained in the will very matter-of-factly, “the sons carry the family line and the daughter belongs to another (her husband’s) family”. This was in 2018.
My grandparents immigrated to the United States in the 1940s. My father was born in Massachusetts in 1945. He attended an American boarding school and never even spoke Chinese fluently. They do not qualify as “off the boat”. They have lived, worked, and socialized with Americans for most of their lives. Nevertheless, their wills communicated a cruel dying message to my aunt and all the girls in our family: they valued their daughters less than their sons.
These histories have informed my identity. I am smart and capable, but I struggle with self-confidence. Only recently have I begun to wonder if my family history has unintentionally hobbled my self-worth, if not my feet.
For most of my young life, be it at home, in school, or at the workplace, even when I know I’m right, my instinct is to defer to men in authority.
As damaging as these stories can be, I don’t want to “cancel” them. Centuries of cruel female subjugation happened in my culture and many others. In some, it continues to happen today. Cancel culture tells us to erase our history of misdeeds in order to protect the feelings of those marginalized today. We see this in the removal of statues and banning of books like “To Kill a Mockingbird” on school reading lists. Better to reframe the telling of these stories in order to continue to progress rather than lose our rich history.
When I tell these stories of our family to my daughters, I am careful to adopt a tone that is outraged. It’s important that they know how women were wrongly devalued in the past and know the full measure of their worth. When they were little, I was careful to choose heroines for them that are strong, capable women like Pocahontas, Mulan, Elsa, and Wonder Woman, who don’t need to be saved by princes.
When my older daughter wanted to start weightlifting to be strong for water polo and volleyball, I hired a well-built female trainer. When my younger daughter, at age 10, wants to surf the big waves with teenage boys and adult men, I don’t dissuade her. I know she can handle it. If my husband tries to tell her it’s too big for her, she yells “sexist!” and heads out. At 10, she has been described by teachers as “class leader”, “alpha”, and “pistol”. She has an unabashed sense of humor and is a fearless thrill-seeker. She regularly beats the boys in tennis, swimming races, and other athletic contests.
As I look at my 17-year-old daughter’s size 11 Nikes, I see a confident young woman who is a formidable athlete, accomplished scholar, and budding feminist. She is a natural leader and gifted public speaker and was nominated Executive Producer of her school’s TedX event. She is a confident performer, frequently reprising lead roles in school musicals. When I hear her use phrases like “mansplaining” and “toxic masculinity”, it makes me laugh and also reassures me.
I am proud of the confident young girls I am raising. I think I have told our collective family history well, as a tool for empowerment and to convey the immeasurable value my girls hold in my heart.