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Scott Valentine





             Early visitors to Korea at first thought it was a society without women;[1] the strict laws of control which applied to women kept them behind closed doors and away from prying eyes. There was a time in Koreas history when upper-class women were not allowed out during the day.[2] Each night a bell would toll and all the men would have to clear the streets, only then would the women, accompanied by their lamp bearing servant women, take to the streets and travel to their various destinations.[3]

             When I first visited Korea in 1985 I drove around Seoul all day and never saw a woman driving a car. Women did not drive! No doubt there were a few out there, but in my first week in Korea I saw only one. As a westerner coming to Korea in the mid 1980s this level of, what at the time seemed an extremely oppressive society, was a major shock. I had never seen that kind of repression of the female gender. Over time and several more visits to Korea I began to see improvements in womens social position, but nothing that promised to soon bring them up to the level of other industrialized nations I had visited. Their progress seemed to be stymied by a force of unknown origin and extreme strength. Years later, work which brought me into contact with hundreds of upper class Korean housewives a month, and the thousands of conversations that ensued as a result of that contact, gave me more insight into those powers and how they affected the different classes of women. All that contact also served to pique my interest in the plight of the Korean woman and inspired me to satisfy that interest by exploring the causes behind their oppression in this paper.


             There have, to date, been many books written on the subject of the Korean woman which have explored everything from the historical roots of their present attitudes to the expanding job opportunities for women in Korean corporations. While the historical works do a fine job of exposing the traditional beliefs that have led to the present attitudes, they have not gone far towards explaining the great impact those lingering beliefs still have on the modern Korean woman. The more recent works on womens increasing participation in the work force, while offering good statistical information on the wage gaps between men and women, and facts on the traditional male attitudes dominating Korean corporations, unfortunately offer little insight into the bleak futures awaiting educated women in search of careers. Many of them conclude that the Korean womans lot is improving and offer loads of innocuous pap about the continued development of... great strides being made... and other such approbations. Recent statistics reported in the media tout the increasing percentages of women entering major corporations[4] but seem to miss the point about the type of work being done and the length of time it is done for. The press offers few contrary views to this rosy picture. And though one of the earliest womens movement groups in Korea, the Yôsông Dongu Hoe (Chosôn Womens Sisterhood Association) was formed as far back as May of 1924,[5] there is at present, a conspicuous absence of womens independence activities.[6]


             I intend to show a broader picture of the Korean womans situation which will reveal a tie between historical cultural beliefs and the current notion of social norms for college-graduate Korean women. To narrow the scope of my paper to the class of women I have had the most contact with, I have concentrated on the condition of upper middle class, college-graduate Korean women.[7] I will explore how the socialization process acts to shape the ideals of Korean girls at home, and how those beliefs are further reinforced in school by the education system. I will also show how it affects other Korean institutions such as marriage, and how those forces together combine to virtually guarantee a womans non-participation in the work force.[8] The end result of all these forces of, socialization, education, marriage and the resulting exclusion from the work force serve to deprive most of these Korean women of a chance to attain financial independence, and in the end, rob them of their personal freedom. If  in the process of writing this paper, I can help to illuminate some of the obstacles that must be overcome before women can achieve a higher level of personal freedom I shall be gratified.


             There are many factors which serve to lead a young girl down the nearly universal path from her childhood, through college, to an adult life as a housewife. The influence of traditionally held beliefs left over from the Chosôn Dynasty (1392-1910) has served to shape many of the current institutions operating in modern Korean society. These beliefs have affected both the attitudes of the parents and the structure of the school system, which both play a part in gently, but forcibly, leading a college girl away from a career and towards the home.

             The socialization process indoctrinates girls from an early age with the idea of maintaining their place in society and fulfilling their roles as mothers, and as such, propagators of the males family line.[9] The road to socialization starts in the home where families emphasize the maternal role of women and discourage any aspirations they may have for liberation based on that all important key to personal freedom, economic independence.

             Once they enter school there is still no relief from the onslaught of anti-egalitarian ideas. From the earliest grades, on through college, women are subtly guided into their ultimate roles, as homemakers. The gender biased attitudes of the teachers and curricula which emphasizes pre-determined, yet different, roles for boys and girls further serve to minimize the options available to girls leaving only those that have always been, and still are, accepted by the society.

             Throughout a young girls life she is raised to believe that her happiness and secure future rest in her ability to enter a good university, engage in marriage, and raise a family. The parents, having come from a generation in which upper middle-class women could not live independently or have personal economic independence, are the propagators of this commonly held belief. Once in school these commonly held beliefs are, if not reinforced, not denied either. The gender-biased curricula of the education system tends to lead women into training for jobs specifically earmarked for women, or encourages them to enter majors which prove to be of little value in the male- dominated job market.

             As the majors many women are urged to pursue in college are generally of no use in the business world, most college-graduate girls engage in administrative (office) work, or other menial jobs, until the time of marriage when familial and social pressures force them to quit to raise a family. The structure of the male-dominated business world often deters those with more marketable majors from pursuing their careers dreams. For the majority who become mothers, management of household duties and raising the children occupy all their time until their children are old enough to spend most of their day in school or in private institutes. By this time ten or more years have passed, the job skills which were never as fully developed as their male counterparts are now beyond rusty. A life as a homemaker is all that is left. Some may engage in part time work but the number of women going back to careers, which quite likely never existed, are few.


             The forces of socialization, marriage and education have discouraged most educated Korean women from pursuing careers. They have suppressed many womens desires to pursue their personal aspirations and goals. They have robbed them of their futures!

             They are raised by both parents and teachers under a set of social norms which still bear the mark of a traditional Confucian influence from the Chosôn Dynasty.[10] The strength of the socialization process is so strong, they have little choice but to conform through the school years. The very structure of the education system itself insures they take educational paths that will lead them to marriage, in spite of career goals they may have. The system of higher education is designed to produce wives for the male graduates of institutions of higher learning, while systematically denying women a chance to find and enter into a career of their choice. The demands of the society (big business backed by the government) are deemed more important than womens freedom, so women are programmed into only those careers the society wishes women to fill (jobs traditionally reserved for women), while the unpaid labor of the educated Korean housewife is anticipated in her predetermined position as mate for the educated Korean man.

             To be sure, Korean women have dreams; dreams of high paying careers and lives of freedom but these are soon shattered by the inequalities of the job market and the realities of a womans place in the society. She soon learns that economic independence is a nearly unattainable goal and marriage with a man who will allow her a career, even if she could find one, is much more than just difficult. Hopes fade, an offer of economic support comes in the form of a marriage proposal. Latent dreams of delaying children in favor of the pursuit of a career are dashed by familial pressures and duties, and her fate is sealed.

Next Chapter - Chapter 2 Socialzation

                  [1] Laurel Kendall and Mark Peterson, eds., Korean women: View From the Inner Room (Cushing, ME: East Rock Press, inc., 1983), 1.

                  [2] Ibid., 5.

                  [3] Ibid.

                  [4] In 1995 the number of newly hired college graduate women reached 11.3%, up from 8.6% in 1994. In 50 Corporations College Graduate Women Hires Exceed 10% for the First Time. (50 Daegûrup daejolchuiôpyôsông chôt 10% nômô) Dong-A Ilbo (Seoul), 3 May 1996, p. 1.

                  [5] Yung-Chung Kim, Womens Movement in Modern Korea (Seoul: Korean Womens Institute, Ewha Womans University Press, 1985), 95.

                  [6] Korea Times (Seoul), 11 November 1995, p. 6.    

                  [7] As the primary focus in this paper is college graduate women, any use of the word woman or women hereafter will refer to college graduate Korean women unless otherwise specified.

                  [8] Hyoung Cho, Labor Force Participation of Women in Korea, in The Conference on Korean Women at Home and Abroad, 24-25 June 1983, (Los Angeles: California State University), 164.

                  [9] Koreas form of Direct lineal descent calls for the passing on of the family headship to the eldest son exclusively. The oldest son then has full responsibility for the longevity, continued status, and financial security of the family. So, the entire future of the family rests on the ability of the wife to bear a son and for that son to be successful.

                  [10] Sei-Wha Chung, Socialization and Women in Korea From the Perspective of the Family, School and Social Education (Seoul: Korean Womens Institute, Ewha University Press; Yôsônghak, May, 1985), 181.