UNBOUND FEET: A SOCIAL HISTORY OF CHINESE WOMEN IN SAN FRANCISCO draws upon a symbol of women’s oppression of China as a thematic framework for this inspiring and well-documented historical study.
For almost seven centuries, it was traditional for young girls in China to be forced to have their feet bound very tightly. The reward for this excruciating pain was the status of gentility and beauty in the marriage market. This custom also ensured women could not walk very far from home and escape.
The first of the five chapters explains the continued inhibiting conditions of the first few Chinese women to come to the Untied States in the nineteenth century: Bound by the patriarchical and hierarchical structures of the old Chinese society transplanted and kept alive in Chinatown, they were crippled by the racism of the larger society outside as well.
The chapters following unearth some of the paradoxes and ironies pervading the slow march of this double minority group toward full participation in a democratic society in the first half of the twentieth century. Years of hostile and discriminatory legislation against the Chinese had forced them to live together in ghettoized conditions. While the men could protect each other and their families, they could also be protected from international and national changes. It was the women then, at the bottom of any social ladder, who first benefited from political upheavals in their former homeland. For example, one of the goals of the Chinese Nationalist movement was to emancipate women; while the Communists effectively wiped out the China that the immigrants had known and remained tied to, the new China helped to “unbind the feet” of the Chinese women in San Francisco. Another irony was that Protestant missionaries, seeking to convert the “heathen” Chinese in the city, found it necessary first to protect and aid those Chinese women who were abused as prostitutes or wives or servants, effectively liberating them to live more independent lives.
The author’s personal interest in this social history, as a descendant of one of these hardy women, enlivens the storytelling. Photographs and personal anecdotes provide an authentic feel; the more scholarly minded will appreciate the newspaper accounts, government census reports, and the extensive bibliography that substantiate the narrative.