It is a well-known image used to illustrate the conservative atmosphere and traditional gender roles of the 1950’s: the husband of the house arrives home after a day at work, seats himself in his comfortable chair, and waits for his obedient wife to bring him his slippers. A matter of archaic convenience, or is there more behind this? Maybe way more?
To my own surprise, I found out that the slipper has actually been a profound symbol of power and dominion since Ancient Times. In his History of Human Marriage of 1898, the Finnish anthropologist and philosopher Edvard Westermarck observed that the slipper was a symbol of power because of its natural association with domestic rule. He came to this conclusion after studying Moroccan marriage customs. Amongst them one in which the bride throws her slipper at the groom.1
But even beyond the domestic sphere, feet and their gear have been associated with power and dominion since the beginnings of human history. In the book of Joshua, it is commanded to “put your feet upon the necks of these Kings” to indicate that the enemy has been defeated.2 In Jewish culture, the shoe was considered a symbol of possession ‒ in an article from 1915, the now obscure scholar Jakob Nacht cites a case in which “the shoe of a person is removed to indicate that he has lost authority over a member of the family”.3
But it is more universal. After having studied feet and shoe culture in Ambon, Dr. Marianne Hulsbosch from the University of Sydney concluded: “In one sense the slipper is the ultimate symbol of subjugation”, but noted how it simultaneously marked the social position of women, as it showed they were free from arduous work and enjoyed freedom of leisure.4 In Germany, a traditional wedding custom mandated the groom to symbolically step into the shoe or slipper of his bride to demonstrate his dominion over her.5 As the slipper is a shoe worn inside the house, and women used to be the ones running the household, they were associated with wearing slippers. And the slipper in itself becomes an answer to the question: Who’s the Boss?
No more than toys and monkeys for women!
That the slipper was a powerful symbol until way into modern times, is indicated by a German pamphlet titled “The Rule of the Slipper or the art to yoke and dominate Men”, which appeared in 1842.6 It was sold as a “humoristic and satirical catechism for women.”7
Its first sentence is already very clarifying: “The slipper is an ancient and indeed very suitable symbol of female dominance.”8 And it gets even better (or worse, depending on the perspective of the reader): “Yes: Hear it you fools! Nature has made us ‒ US! – the lords of creation. As long as the world exists, the woman has ruled over you by a secret but strong magic. You are subjects, no more than toys and monkeys for the women!”9
The pamphlet was written by someone called Emilie Alfken, and of course I wanted to find out more about this woman, who stated that women should use their gifts (sharp nails, teeth, and tongue) to subdue their male counterparts. But this is where things get shady…
None of the usually very complete encyclopaedias of German authors acknowledge Emilie Alfken’s existence. Only a 24-part encyclopaedia of 19th century German authors briefly mentions her, and it can only confirm that a book written by her appeared in 1842. What is going on here?
In the Germany between the revolutions of 1830 and 1848, women started to step out of their traditional gender role and penetrated the traditionally male territory of writing novels. They started to “swing the pen instead of the needle.”10 Female authors like Fanny Lewald and Louise Aston thematised and challenged the traditional gender roles in marriage. Making the sordid philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte cry out that women should keep writing what they are good at: guides for raising children and moral guides for fellow women. No way should they try themselves at things like novels, that would be anything but useful.11 And, seemingly, fear was that women would not only swing their pen, but also their slippers.
The Rubicon of male rule
In 1832, an article titled “Slipper speech of an author and satirist on the day of his marriage” appeared in the newspaper Der Deutsche Horizont. It stated that “The slipper is the Rubicon of male rule.”12 The piece was reprinted in several other newspapers that year.
In 1836, the tenth volume of an anthology of the poet Jean Paul Richter appeared that contained a short observation called the “Wife’s-Slipper-Reign”:
We poor drones and worker bees fly after and serve the Queen bees ‒ how little do we resemble the Swedish, to whom King Charles the Twelfth promised to rule over them with his boot ‒ when a slipper is enough to rule over us.13
And these are only two examples of a flood of poems, stories, and jokes overly concerning themselves with the threat of the rule of the slipper. The historian James M. Brophy concluded in 2009 that the “Slipper Pamphlets” were part of a wider range of satirical pamphlets, often appearing around the traditional Mardi-Gras period, and were meant to criticise the passive obedience and culture of servitude in Germany.14 That statement could be solid, considering the popular revolutionary moods of the time. In that context, it would be likely that a woman author called Emilie Alfken never existed for real. And that would explain why there is no further trace of her except for the ominous pamphlet. It probably was a nom de plume of an unknown satirist, wishing to make fun of the political culture in Germany of the days. And as politics was a male activity back then, who will you mock? The real author might have been a woman or a man, who knows?
A model husband of rigid morals
But even if the pamphlet was a mere political satire, it might have contained a Freudian slipper. In Freud’s World, nothing is without hidden erotic content. In his “On Fetishism”, Freud stated that the male fascination for female feet and shoes are essentially a product of a male fear of castration: When the curiosity of a young boy gets the better of him, he peeks upwards from the female legs to try and see her genitalia, where he discovers to his horror that the woman has no penis. When he then looks down in shock, he discerns the feet of the woman, which will become a substitute for the missing female phallus (and if not becoming homosexual by the sheer shock, a foot fetishist in the making).15
The truth of this might be contested, but that there is a male fascination for female feet and their gear is beyond debate. The Austro-German psychiatrist Richard Krafft-Ebing published a compendium of sexual deviancies in 1886. In this book he cites a case of a 59-year-old man, a model husband of rigid morals and father of several children, who frequented bordellos on a weekly basis to let the girls stand on him with their shoes on, even to the point where a heel was pressing into his eye socket.16
But well, let’s not elaborate on sexual practices here; just believe me when I say the internet is full of it these days. But next time you put on your slippers, you might consider that you are actually demonstrating your domestic rule.
Latest posts by Lars Sanders (see all)
- Emilie and the Freudian Slipper - June 25, 2017
- Henchman on the Sofa ‒ Vyacheslav Menzhinsky: Poet and Hangman - November 9, 2016
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E.Westermarck, The History of Human Marriage. Volume II (1898, London 1921) 277/495 and then some ↩
J. Nacht, The symbolism of the shoe with special reference to Jewish Sources in The Jewish Quarterly Review Vol 6. No 1 July 1915 pp 1-22, there 2 ↩
Ibidem, 4 ↩
M. Hulsbosch, Pointy Shoes and Pith Helmets. Dress and Identity Construction in Ambon from 1850 to 1942 (Leiden 2014) 55 ↩
K. Dietz, P.G. Hesse, Wörterbuch der Sexuologie und Ihrer Grenzgebiete (Rudolstadt 1964) 211 ↩
E. Alfken, Das Pantoffel Regiment, oder die Kunst, die Männer zu unterjochen und zu beherrschen (Wesel 1841) ↩
Augsburger Postzeitung, September 5th 1842 ↩
E. Alfken, De Pantoffel-Regering. Of de Kunst om mannen onder het juk te brengen en te beheerschen. (Gouda 1843) ↩
Ibidem, 7 ↩
R. McNicholl/K. Wilhelms, Romane von Frauen in Hansers Sozialgeschichte der Deutschen Literatur. Fünfter Band. Zwischen Restauration und Revolution. 1815-1848. (München 1998) pp 210-239, there 210 ↩
J.G Fichte, Sämmtliche Werke. Herausgegeben von J.H Fichte. Dritter Band (Berlin 1845) 352 ↩
Pantoffel-Rede Eines Schriftstellers und Satyrikers am Tage seiner Verheiratung in Der Deutsche Horizont. Ein humoristisches Blatt für Zeit, Geist und Sitte, November 29th 1832 ↩
J. P. Richter, Geist und Kraftvolle Stellen aus dessen Sämtlichen Werken. Zehnter Band (Grätz 1836) 76 ↩
J. M. Brophy, Popular Culture and the Public Sphere in the Rhineland 1800-1850. (New Haven 2009) 208 ↩
S. Freud, Fetishismus (1927) no page number ↩
R. Krafft-Ebing, Psychopathia Sexualis. Mit besonderer Berücksichtigung der konträren Seksualempfindung. Eine Medizinisch-Gerichtliche Studie für Ärtzte und Juristen (Stuttgart 1886) 116 ↩