From Footbinding to Abortion and Beyond – This Has to Stop! by Janet Maika’i Rudolph

Children’s Museum of Indianapolis

My husband, Marty, is a retired podiatrist.  He worked in pockets of New York City that were poor and largely immigrant. When he first started his practice, he treated women from China whose feet had been bound. Despite being officially outlawed 1912, footbinding was still being practiced well into modern times. He saw these patients in the 1970s and 80s.

For those who don’t know what it is, young girls, as young as 3-5 would have the bones in their feet broken and then the feet bound with cloth strips. Every few years, the feet would be broken again until the desired result was created. To create that affect, the toes would be flattened against the bottom of the foot and arch would be so broken and damaged that the heel would curl back to the front of the foot. At each of the breakings the girl would need to learn to walk again.  One can only imagine that pain of walking on foot bones that had been repeatedly broken. And here is an especially chilling part. The mothers would do it to their own daughters. I won’t go into further gruesome details because they can be easily looked up on the internet.  It left the girls crippled for life.

When they came into my husband’s office, their feet would have ulcerating infections. Many had to have amputations to save their lives.  He still speaks about the footbinding practice with anger in his voice. Here is some of what he told me:

“Sometimes they would even start younger than 3 because the bones aren’t formed yet making them even more malleable.”

“Their feet would constantly ulcerate because the foot is not structured to weight-bear in those areas.”

“The women never came in with their husbands or other men. They only came with other women.”

“Some had to be carried. Others were in wheelchairs.”

“They had dangerous weeping ulcers. Some we healed. Some needed amputation.”

“Some just never returned. We thought that might be because they feared they would have gotten in trouble by asking for help.”

No one knows for sure how the practice was started, but through the centuries, it is estimated that two billion girls had this done.  It was a status symbol, a prerequisite for marrying into money. The smaller the feet, the greater the dowry.  According to the Smithsonian Magazine there was a ranking for the smallness of the feet. The three-inch foot was known as a “golden lotus” and four-inch foot was a “silver lotus.” A foot of five-inches would be “dismissed” as an iron lotus and those women were not as valuable. This practice has been so hard to eradicate that the last factory making lotus shoes only closed in 1999. 

A woman’s foot next to a man’s

The Smithsonian adds this line in their discussion: “A small foot in China, no different from a tiny waist in Victorian England, represented the height of female refinement.” No difference? Excuse me? Perhaps on a spectrum of controlling women and using our bodies as weapons against us, but a huge difference in the crippling and traumatizing effects.    

For centuries, the Chinese girls had no voice. Their culture, their families, their parents, made the decision to maim them and they had no voice to resist. And then when they would grow up,  they would do it to their own daughters.

Abortion is the front-line issue here in the US now. Look at someone like Amy Coney Barrett, and other women (not to mention men like Kavanaugh who has two daughters) who use their power to keep women under the thumb of patriarchy.

But unlike the Chinese girls, we do have a choice. Girls have voices. We have voices. We need to raise and amplify each and every voice, especially the young ones.  If we don’t stop the patterns of patriarchy now, they will continue in one form or another in perpetuity: footbinding, small waists, genital mutilation, forcing women to become mothers and on and on. This is our chance, now to say  NO!  In that vein I want to amplify the words of 12-year-old Addison Gardner from Buffalo Middle School; She spoke at a public hearing in West Virginia legislative looking at restrictive abortion legislation. She had 45 seconds to speak, and boy did she use that to speak truth to power with special poignancy. 

But first, I want to share the evangelical beliefs about what “helping a young girl” means. This is from an interview by Rabbi Jack Moline with a former anti-abortion leader, Rev. Rob Schenck. The interview appeared in Mother Jones where Rev. Schenck described evangelical thinking: “The thinking is basically this: God creates life in the womb. It is life from the very moment of conception and continues until natural expiration without any assistance. During that time, God places supreme value—no pun given our present context—supreme value on that life so you must preserve life at all costs. That means risking the odd, rare chance that something like this 10-year-old’s rape and pregnancy might occur. But after all, if we give her support, and we pray for her, we surround her with love and we provide her with resources, she can come through that and will likely in the end be stronger for it. That would be the thinking.”

Addison’s words: “I play for varsity volleyball, and I run track. My education is very important to me, and I plan on doing great things in life,” she said. “If a man decides that I’m an object, and does unspeakable, tragic things to me, am I, a child, supposed to carry and birth another child?”

“Am I to put my body through the physical trauma of pregnancy? Am I to suffer the mental implications, a child who had no say in what was being done with my body?” she continued. “Some here say they are pro-life. What about my life? Does my life not matter to you?”

And speaking of youth voices –  a shout out to another remarkable youth – Olivia Julianna

Afternote: After I wrote this, the Kansas population voted to protect abortion rights, several state legislatures have been arguing about how draconian to make the servitude of pregnant people. Indiana has passed their legislation against abortion. We have a long way to go! Patriarchies tentacles are deep, deep, deep.

BIO: Janet Maika’i Rudolph. “IT’S ALL ABOUT THE QUEST.” I have walked the spirit path for over 25 years traveling to sacred sites around the world including Israel to do an Ulpan (Hebrew language studies while working on a Kibbutz), Eleusis and Delphi in Greece, Avebury and Glastonbury in England, Brodgar in Scotland, Machu Picchu in Peru, Teotihuacan in Mexico, and Giza in Egypt. Within these travels, I have participated in numerous shamanic rites and rituals, attended a mystery school based on the ancient Greek model, and studied with shamans around the world. I am twice initiated. The first as a shaman practitioner of a pathway known as Divine Humanity. The second ordination in 2016 was as an Alaka’i (a Hawaiian spiritual guide with Aloha International). I have written three books: When Moses Was a ShamanWhen Eve Was a Goddess, (now available in Spanish, Cuando Eva era una Diosa), and One Gods

Categories: Body, Feminism, Feminist Awakenings, Feminist Ethics, Gender and Power, General, Sexual Violence, Violence Against Women, Women and Community, Women's Agency, Women's Rights, Women's Voices

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12 replies

  1. Thank you Janet for conveying your husband’s unique insights, and also for the words of Addison Gardner. It brings tears to my eyes, some of them tears of gratitude, that our very young women like Addison can so pointedly express themselves, and also tears that our young women must do that now.


  2. So touching. It just never before occurred to me that footbinding and abortion are both tools used by men to make women more saleable, but it certainly makes sense. I used to read novels by Lisa See and other Chinese writers, but they always had women with bound feet in them, and even reading about those women was unendurably painful, so I put the books down. I seem to remember a novel titled The Footbinding Chair, but it’s not on my shelf anymore.

    Good for Addison Gardener! Hooray for your husband’s work. Bright blessings to your work. Let’s all do what we can to protect female bodies and souls and spirits. Bright blessings!


    • I hear you Barbara, It is hard to comprehend what has been done to women through the ages of patriarchy. I find it hard to accept what it must have felt like to have society itself bare down on you with its full weight.


  3. Oh Janet – two BILLION women – horrifying. But you are right. WE DO HAVE VOICES AND WE NEED TO USE THEM ANY WAY WE CAN.

    YOUR WORDS: “If we don’t stop the patterns of patriarchy now, they will continue in one form or another in perpetuity: footbinding, small waists, genital mutilation, forcing women to become mothers and on and on” SAY IT ALL. Thank you.


  4. A wonderful essay. I had no idea what foot binding really involved. How horrifying, and especially that each generation of women did it to their own daughters. There are so many ways our bodies are under attack and have been for millennia. Thank you for showing the connections between each of these and sounding the call to stand up and make sure it stops here. Seeing the young women I know, especially at the abortion rights rally we had here in my little New England town right after the draft ruling was released, I have some faith that it will. So many girls and young women in my circle of family and friends are proud, aware, confident, and determined.


    • It strikes me as I read your comment Carolyn just how much evil energy and intention has been spent in working to control female bodies through time. Patriarchy! Carol led the way in pointing how just destructive it is. Gives me chills.


  5. In North America, the wearing of high heels, difficult to walk and in not healthy for the feet is also a practice by women, even in high office. A high heel shoe is unnatural and can cause issues. They are seen as sign of “dressing up” and beauty. Men would never be required to wear such footwear. We are sometime blind to our own customs.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh yes, Ann, I agree completely. We used to joke (but not really a joke at all) that high heels were keeping my husband’s podiatry practice in business. If a woman wears heels all the time, their achilles tendon shortens and then later in age when a more stable shoe with little or no heel would be appropriate, women can’t wear them because they can’t put their heels down on the ground. Broken ankles, sprained ones, torn tendons, all sorts of problems that kept us busy and keeps women from healthy walking.

      I agree with you, comes from the same strain of thought. So does Cinderella where the stepsisters are cutting off their toes to fit into the shoes in the hopes the prince will notice them. All ughs all around!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Everything you said and readers comments are so very true and so horrific. Women must stand up and claim the right of autonomy over our bodies and lives. Vote Blue in November as Red will only bring more suffering and pain for all. On high heel shoes my friends and I have always called them “F…. Me Shoes” as they are meant to accentuate a woman’s sexual availability – disgusting!


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