MYTH 1: WOMEN'S EMPOWERMENT COMES AT THE EXPENSE OF MEN

MYTH 1: WOMEN'S EMPOWERMENT COMES AT THE EXPENSE OF MEN

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Posted
10/10/13

LOOKING BACK: Kang Tongbi, China

Kang Tongbi's mission to empower Chinese women began before she realized. When her father, Kang Youwei, a reformist advisor to Emperor Guangxu, chose to defy Chinese tradition by refusing to bind her feet, he ensured Kang could lead an active life free of the literal and figurative constraints that confined so many women of her era.

Foot-binding was the centuries-old, upper-class Chinese practice of breaking a young girl's toes and folding them under her feet with tight bandages. The resulting tiny feet, venerated in the literature of the era as "three-inch golden lotuses" were signifiers of class, wealth and sex appeal. But bound feet also left women permanently disfigured and hobbled.

Kang's passion to end this mutilation &ndash and to liberate Chinese women &ndash flourished after her family was exiled. Kang moved to the United States where she immediately began organizing Chinese immigrants and fellow exiles into women's branches of her father's organization, the Chinese Empire Reform Society.

A New York Tribune reporter present when Kang, only 15 or 16 years old, opened the first New York branch of the group in 1903 quotes her explaining to the gathering's English speakers what she hoped to accomplish for Chinese women: "I want them to read papers. I want them to know things. I want them to help to make things go right and to have a grand education."

Kang then attended Barnard College, where a special arrangement with the school allowed her to travel extensively on behalf of the reform society while staying enrolled.

After college, Kang returned to Shanghai, where she edited one of China's first women's journals, worked to end foot binding and supported the Shanghai Women's Association, whose slogan translated as "down with the warlords and up with the equality of men and women." China banned foot binding in 1911. Before her death in 1969, Kang also published a biography of her father — the man who left her with the feet she used to walk China forward.

LOOK FORWARD

Cats stand by cats, and dogs help dogs. Why should not we women stand together and help each other? 

- Kang Tongbi

1 "Notable Alumnae," Barnard College Archives. Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Barnard College Archives. 

The Mortarboard 1909.  Courtesy of the Barnard College Archives.

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