Lily, Snow Flower, and the other female characters live very different lives from the men around them. In the culture and time of the novel, a woman's purpose is primarily to bring honor to her natal (birth) family and her family by marriage, and to do so primarily by bearing sons. While a woman's role in society is undeniably a product of the cultural traditions of the time, the specific beliefs and expectations guiding the women in the novel deserve special consideration.
The novel sets out very specific and delineated male and female spheres and ways of being. Men work outside the home, while women spend their entire lives in the upstairs and entirely female chamber of their homes, descending only to cook, clean, and attend to "bed business" with their husbands. They leave their homes only to visit with their friends, attend ceremonies, and to visit their natal homes during certain festivals. While Lily freely admits that she knows little of the world of men, what she does mention of their world is intensely focused on physical movement and travel. In contrast, women are unable to move far or fast once their feet are bound, indicating that a primary difference between men and women is linked to movement. The idea of movement as gendered carries over into the idea that even thoughts can be gendered in nature, and moving outside the appropriate thoughts for one's own gender can cause trouble. Lily sees this play out most prominently through her mother. When Third Sister and Grandmother fall sick and die (from foot binding complications and old age respectively), Lily blames Mama's "man-hope" in Lily's bright future for distracting her mother from caring for Grandmother, which should have been her top priority as the first daughter-in-law. In this way, the novel indicates that not conforming completely, in both thought and action, to the standards of one's gender has disastrous real-world consequences.
Alongside a woman's thoughts, a woman's body is one of her most important assets. A woman's “lily” feet can guarantee a good marriage, which can bring prosperity to her natal family through bride gifts from their future in-laws, and her ability to reproduce and bear sons secures her place in her husband's home. This introduces the idea of the female body as currency. Lily rises in status not just because she has perfect feet, but because she has several sons, all of whom survive. Snow Flower, on the other hand, has a son who is sickly, a son who dies very young, and daughters, all but one of which are stillborn. Further, Snow Flower's husband takes his anger at her "failure" out on her by beating her and even inducing several miscarriages due to the severity of his violence.
While Lily's reproductive body allows her to rise, Snow Flower's revolts in every way imaginable. When Snow Flower dies of what is likely uterine cancer, it's essentially her very womanhood that kills her. However, in the case of Snow Flower, the novel presents a paradox. While Snow Flower's physical womanhood kills her, her thoughts and fixation on birds and freedom, though very “masculine” and therefore uncouth for a woman, keep her from sinking too deeply into a deadly state of emotional despair, and arguably give her a richer inner life than that which the overly traditional and submissive Lily enjoys.
Women and Gender ThemeTracker
Women and Gender Quotes in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
For my entire life I longed for love. I knew it was not right for me—as a girl and later as a woman—to want or expect it, but I did, and this unjustified desire has been at the root of every problem I have experienced in my life.
For us, the pain didn't lessen. How could it? But we learned the most important lesson for all women: that we must obey for our own good.
"A true lady lets no ugliness into her life," she repeated again and again, drilling the words into me. "Only through pain will you have beauty. Only through suffering will you find peace. I wrap, I bind, but you will have the reward."
"I would rather keep her on this earth unmarried than lose her forever."
"Then she would have no purpose and no value," Aunt reasoned. "Your mother love tells you this is no future."
"My mother bound my feet—and me to the chair—even tighter the next time."
"You can't fight your fate," I said. "It is predestined."
"You married out," Mama said, in a way that seemed oddly detached. "You go to another village. Your mother-in-law is cruel. Your husband doesn't care for you. We wish you would never leave, but every daughter marries away. Everyone agrees. Everyone goes along with it. You can cry and beg to come home, we can grieve that you have gone, but you—and we—have no choice. The old saying makes this very clear: 'if a daughter doesn't marry out, she's not valuable; if fire doesn't raze the mountain, the land will not be fertile.'"
Anyone who tells you that the Yao people never care for their daughters is lying. We may be worthless. We may be raised for another family. But often we are loved and cherished, despite our natal families' best efforts not to have feelings for us. Why else in our secret writing do you see phrases like "I was a pearl in my father's palm" so frequently? Maybe as parents we try not to care. I tried not to care about my daughter, but what could I do? She nursed at my breast like my sons had, she cried her tears in my lap, and she honored me by becoming a good and talented woman fluent in nu shu. Uncle's pearl was gone from him forever.
And in our local dialect, the word for wife is the same as the word for guest. For the rest of my life I would be merely a guest in my husband's home—not the kind you treat with special meals, gifts of affection, or soft beds, but the kind who is forever viewed as a foreigner, alien and suspect.
All of it was women's work—the very work that men think is merely decorative—and it was being used to change the lives of the women themselves.
As I came to the end, I added a few new sentiments. "Don't express misery where others can see you. Don't let sobbing build. Don't give ill-mannered people a reason to make fun of you or your family. Follow the rules. Smooth your anxious brow. We will be old sames forever."
We could not write anything too negative about our circumstances. This was tricky, since the very form of a married woman's letter needed to include the usual complaints—that we were pathetic, powerless, worked to the bone, homesick, and sad. We were supposed to speak directly about our feelings without appearing ungrateful, no-account, or unfilial.
Sons are the foundation of a woman's self. They give a woman her identity, as well as dignity, protection, and economic value... sons are a woman's crowning glory.
... Now that I lived in the Lu household, where all the men knew men's writing, I saw that our secret women's writing wasn't much of a secret. Then it dawned on me that men throughout the county had to know about nu shu. How could they not? ... Men just considered our writing beneath them.
With her bold act, I realized the true purpose of our secret writing. It was not to compose girlish notes to each other or even to introduce us to the women in our husbands' families. It was to give us a voice. Our nu shu was a means for our bound feet to carry us to each other, for our thoughts to fly across the fields as Snow Flower had written.
I retreated to the safety of the formal lines appropriate for a married woman, hoping this would remind Snow Flower that our only real protection as women was the placid face we presented, even in those moments of great distress.
Certainly Snow Flower would say something on his behalf. He was the first son after all. But my old same did not love the boy the way she should have.
The butcher's brokenhearted question was one that appeared in many nu shu stories and songs. I glanced at the faces of the other women around the fire and saw their unspoken question: Could a man—this butcher—feel the same despair and sadness that we women feel when we lose a child?
"We might expect this loss of affection from our husbands—they have a right, and we are only women—but to endure this from another woman, who by her very sex has experienced much cruelty just by living, is merciless."
I thought I would never forgive Snow Flower, but instead of dwelling on that my mind tumbled with the realization that my laotong's womb had betrayed her again and that the tumor inside her must have been growing for many years. I had a duty to care...
As girls we are told that we are useless branches, because we will not carry on our natal family names but only the names of the families we marry out to, if we are lucky enough to bear sons. In this way, a woman belongs to her husband's family forever, whether she is alive or dead. All of this is true, and yet these days my contentment comes from knowing that Snow Flower's and my blood will soon rule the house of Lu.