Why a half-crippled woman was considered a catch to prospective rural husbands is a point of dispute among experts. One theory is that foot-binding among commoners was motivated by dreams of marrying up. But Melissa Brown, an assistant professor of anthropology at Stanford University, says her surveys of bound-foot women found that only a small proportion married someone of a higher class. About half married into the same class and some ended up in a poorer household. She's among the scholars who contend that -- strange as it sounds -- rural foot-binding was driven by economics. It forced girls and women to work at home, spinning yarn, processing tea and shucking oysters.
"How do you get a naturally healthy 6-year-old to sit for hours? You break her feet," Prof. Brown says. For Chinese mothers seeking fertile, hard-working girls for their sons to marry, bound feet meant obedience and restraint.
"Footbinding did not spread because (of) men's erotic interest," Stanford anthropologist Hill Gates wrote in a 2007 paper. The books and art held up as examples of foot fetishism, these scholars say, would have been for the literate minority, and so are a poor gauge of mass beliefs.
The economic logic for binding started to unravel when machine-made cotton yarn became widely available in the early 20th century, coinciding with a bust in tea prices. At the same time, abolitionist movements began in prosperous coastal regions, initially led by foreign missionaries. At public rallies, women were urged to burn their foot-binding cloths. Activists composed "letting-feet-out" songs.
Wall Street Journal
Of course it was economics. Corsets were no doubt about the same thing.