Never Marry a Woman with Big Feet

Countless ideas about women have been recorded over 27 the centuries in the most concise of all literary genres, the proverb. Mineke Schipper’s impressive study examines more than 15,000 sayings about women, drawn from 150 countries and more than 240 languages. They appear on crockery, tiles and clothing as well as in books, but most are passed on by word of mouth. Schipper arranges them by theme: the female body, the phases of a woman’s life as a girl, bride and wife and later as a mother and grandmother, and the joys and sorrows of love, sex and childbearing.

Original title
Trouw nooit een vrouw met grote voeten
Mineke Schipper

Striking similarities emerge across cultures. Mothers, for example, are praised around the world: ‘Mother is God number two’ (Malawi) and ‘Mother’s milk is holy’ (Mongolian), whereas wives seem to be a problem: ‘Never marry a woman with bigger feet than your own’ is advice from Mozambique, but amazingly a Chinese saying contains exactly the same message, and even uses the same metaphor. Those big feet refer to female talents, and all over the world proverbs seem to warn men against marrying women with more talents or education than they have themselves.

Of course sayings about women tell us a lot about men: ‘Women and cutlets, the more you hit them the better they’ll be’ (German). The legacy of humanity’s proverbs does not simply describe society, they reflect ethical norms and cultural ideals, particularly those that serve the interests of men. Never Marry a Woman with Big Feet is revealing in a number of ways. Two contradictory lines of thought emerge. On the one hand men are implacable tyrants and shameless profiteers, but they are also insecure, anxious beings who risk entrapment by women. Women are victims, but their beauty and ability to procreate lend them a great deal of power.

Never Marry a Woman with Big Feet looks into the place and status of women in cultures all over the world from an intriguing new perspective. It also illuminates the function of proverbs. This is a unique, funny, moving and often startling collection, a global cultural history in miniature.

Never Marry a Woman with Big Feet A fascinating analysis of more than 15,000 proverbs (…) an engrossing book to dip into.

Times Literary Supplement

A fine contribution to the cosmopolitan conversation that ought to come with globalisation.

Kwame Anthony Appiah, Princeton University
Mineke Schipper
Mineke Schipper (b. 1938) was Professor of Intercultural Literary Studies at the University of Leiden. She has professorships in Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Burkina Faso and China. She received a Dutch knighthood for ‘building intercultural bridges nationally and internationally, inside and outside the academy’ and continues her scholarly work at the Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society. She wrote 'Widows' as a recent widow herself.
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