Never Marry a Woman with Big Feet

(Trouw Nooit Een Vrouw Met Grote Voeten)

Mineke Schipper

Winner of The Eureka Intermediair Prize 2005 – Best Non-Fiction Book
Also nominated in the Eureka Furore Category – Best Female Achievement

Never Marry a Woman with Big Feet

The Sena in Malawi and Mozambique have a proverb: ‘Never marry a wife with bigger feet than your own.’ And the Chinese have an astonishingly similar message. In cultures all over the world, the ideal woman has been depicted in proverbial form – in the author’s words, ‘the world’s smallest literary genre’. This extensive corpus of proverbs from 245 languages delineates the feminine ideal and vilifies her fear-inducing counterpart – the talented, intelligent, powerful, defiant, or occult woman.

Proverbs perpetuate contrasting views of men and women. Men are inexorable tyrants, shameless profiteers, as well as insecure, fearful beings. Women are lamentable victims, and yet extremely powerful. These contradictions are exposed directly and surreptitiously in proverbs, a language in which very little appears to change and yet change is constant as male and female roles and domains become increasingly integrated.

Structured to represent the focus of the proverb genre, Never Marry a Woman with Big Feet collates and draws global conclusions from the experience of woman both interculturally and physically – women’s bodies, both in terms of different parts of the body and its beautification; phases of life, from girls to brides, wives, co-wives, widows, mother-in-law, grandmothers; women’s basics of life, such as love, sex, pregnancy and childbirth; female power. This is a stylish critical anthology, a unique and incomparable resource.

‘The great eighteenth-century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico believed that despite all the cultural differences, there must be “a mental language common to all nations” that made communication possible among different nations, and he found proof of this common language in the numerous comparable proverbs and maxims discernible everywhere in the world. With her excellent book, Never Marry a Woman with Big Feet: Women in Proverbs from around the World, Professor Mineke Schipper not only offers a wealth of textual evidence of the existence of such a common language, but also enables us to understand and appreciate women’s lives, ideas, and wisdom that show a certain universal significance in their very social and cultural diversity. This makes a remarkable contribution to women’s studies, and to the study of comparative and world literature.’ Zhang Longxi, Chair Professor of Comparative Literature and Translation, City University of Hong Kong

‘Schipper’s prose is light, fast-paced and witty, and her analysis of what lies behind the proverbs is completely gripping.’ Sunday Telegraph

‘…no one who casually picks it up will be able to put it down, as gems of inspired sayings, bon mots, zanyjokes, and insightful analyses leap out of every page.’ Wendy Doniger, University of Chicago

‘This is an entertaining, adroit examination of how far woman has come in man’s estimation, and how far she still has to go.’ Publishers Weekly

‘[A] fascinating analysis of more than 15,000 proverbs…an engrossing book.’ Times Literary Supplement

‘…a lively and sharply pointed book… Feminist authors and teachers will be analyzing and gratefully quoting her material for at least a generation.’ National Post, Canada

‘A fine contribution to the cosmopolitan conversation that ought to come with globalization.’ K. Anthony Appiah, Princeton University

‘…enthralling, amusing and alarming in equal measures.’ Conscience Magazine

Also shortlisted for the Katharine Briggs Folklore Award 2004

Here are some example proverbs, many more of which can be found in Never Marry a Woman with Big Feet:

A husband at home is like a flea in your ear. (Spanish, Chile)
No evil is as bad as a mother-in-law. (Greek)
Free of her lips, free of her hips. (English)
The thicker the veil, the less it’s worth lifting. (Turkish)
Woman may govern heart and pan, cup and head are for the man. (German)
God protect us from hairy women and beardless men. (Arabic)
Women reason with the womb. (Italian)
An old man who marries a young woman buys a newspaper for others to read it. (Portuguese, Brazil)
Every woman is beautiful in the dark, from a distance, and under an umbrella. (Japanese)
She who offers a half-cooked meal is better than she who offers her buttocks. (Rwanda)
One lame son is more valuable than eighteen golden daughters. (China)
A woman’s heart sees more than men’s eyes (Swedish)
The mouth is a rose, and the tongue a thorn. (Hungarian)
A fat woman is a quilt for the winter. (Multani, India)
A pretty face is a punishment. (Estonia)


  • Yale University Press (UK and USA unabridged – reverted)
  • Amsterdam University Press (abridged – reverted)
  • Spectrum NL (unabridged)
  • Bert Bakker NL (abridged)
  • Oceano World Spanish (reverted)
  • Eichborn Verlag Germany
  • Dar el Shorouk Egypt (Arabic Language rights)
  • Partvonal Kiado Hungary
  • Bertrand Brazil
  • Bookscope Korea
  • Sextante Editora Portugal
  • Editions Philippe Rey France
  • Ponte Alle Grazie Italy
  • Speaking Tiger World English and Hindi
  • Vellant Romania
  • NLN Czech Republic
  • Mehta Publishing India (Marathi)
  • Delidolu, an imprint of Tudem Turkey

Material: finished copies (422pp unabridged; 350pp abridged)