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             It all starts with a simple dream, a dream the parents have to provide as best they can for their children, to raise their children to fit into the society in which they will live, to instill in them the skills they will need to grow up well at home, successfully complete their school education, and then live out full, happy lives. This dream is not so uncommon, it is probably held by most of the parents in the world. What makes the Korean case unique is the combination of the late opening of its borders to foreign influence, its recent emergence as an industrialized nation and its history of strong Confucian values which suppressed women throughout the Chosôn Dynasty. Under these conditions, which have left Korea¡¯s Confucian past so near the industrialized present, Korea¡¯s special brand of strict Neo-Confucianism has been able to influence modern society to a greater extent.


             During the Chosôn Dynasty, Neo-Confucianism called for the debasing of women and the honoring of men. It relegated Yang¡¯ban women to the shadows of the Korean male¡¯s domain and required of them the common virtues of chastity, filial piety, sacrifice and servitude. Women were considered a drain on a family¡¯s resources who were raised to ultimately serve another family. They had no voice in their own futures and their mates were chosen for them.

             As married women they endured hardships in the in-law¡¯s home. Under the authority of the mother-in-law they served as virtual slaves. They had no status in their new home until they could produce a male heir to the family line. Failure to bear a son would generally result in the husband acquiring either a new wife, a second wife, or an adopted son. Women were in essence tools of reproduction, and as such, needed little in the way of education.

             The education they did receive was limited to Confucian texts which taught them of the proper Confucian behavior regarding fidelity to parents, marriage, the relationship of husband and wife, and a mother¡¯s manners. They were excluded from the civil service examination system which led to coveted government jobs and high social status. They instead, achieved their status in society by marrying into families of social status equal to or greater than the status of their natal families.

             And they absolutely did not work outside the house. Their work was restricted to the home were they would spend most of their lives raising children and serving the husband and in-law family. At one time they were not even allowed out during the day but could only move under the cover of darkness after the streets were cleared of men. Their entire interaction with outsiders was restricted allowing them to speak only to close relatives.


             Fortunately things have changed for the better since Korea¡¯s delayed entry into the international community. Women are no longer under the direct control of overbearing mothers-in-law. Men can no longer bring in second wives to bear children. And the lack of a son, though still a major concern, does not so often lead to a divorce.

             The influence and efforts of foreign missionaries helped establish many new schools, some of which were for women. Women are no longer required to read Confucian texts touting the image of an ideal Confucian woman. The civil service examination system has been abolished in favor of an open college entrance examination which is open equally to men and women of all classes. Women can now leave the safety of their homes during the day and interact with strangers more freely. And the work opportunities for women are increasing slowly, but steadily.

             Korea¡¯s late entry into the industrialized age and its strict Neo-Confucian code, however, have left lingering traces of many of the long held Confucian traditions from the not so distant past. While the improvements are many, so are the negative influences.

             Women are still debased. They are not treated as equals in the home or at work. Girls are generally given less attention and fewer educational opportunities than boys since they will not be required to carry on the family¡¯s bloodline and the economic future of the family. Women are still raised to serve another. They generally cannot move out of the parents¡¯ house and gain personal and economic independence before marriage, and for the most part, never have the opportunity to experience total personal freedom in their lives.[1] The way of the three following has left its mark on modern society.              Parents no longer choose daughters¡¯ marriage partners for them but do frequently set them up on blind dates for the purpose of meeting a spouse. And parents still have a rather strong veto power should a mate chosen by a daughter not be acceptable.

             Once they are married they still serve primarily as bearers of the next generation (over 99% bear children) and women¡¯s names are still stricken from their natal family¡¯s register.

             The Confucian texts are gone but children are still exposed to a similar form of socialization under the parent¡¯s tutelage (100% of the parents either want their daughters to work just a few years then marry, or to just marry). Those attitudes are reinforced in the schools by texts, school mottoes, and teachers¡¯ gender concepts.

             The new college entrance examination system, though freeing women from having to rely on their family¡¯s social standing to find a man of high status, now forces them to successfully enter a university and use this new status indicator to find and marry a man of means.

             And college graduate women still do not work (91% of the college graduates don¡¯t have careers). Most of their time is spent in managing the home, bearing and raising children, and overseeing their education while serving all the family¡¯s needs. Any foray into the world of work generally teaches them that they cannot afford to work due to the male female wage gap. The low positions available and discriminatory pressures at work further deter them from pursuing careers.


             After seeing the various forces that work to shape the socialization process and its resultant affect on the institutions of marriage, education and women¡¯s work there clearly seems to be a string of causes and effects that guide the Korean woman through her life to a predetermined role within the society. Like the wolf girls Korean women are products of the environment they were born into, and live in. Their environment shapes them to fit in, and leaves them with a limited amount of power to change their own destinies.[2]

             The forces of the socialization process at home and school leave them with a feeling that marriage is the only way to lead one¡¯s life after leaving the parents¡¯ home. The familial and societal pressures to bear children assure them instant families which then help to exclude them from the job market. All these forces together, these causes and their effects, quite literally rob the educated Korean woman of a chance to pursue goals she may have had for a career. They rob her of personal aspirations and plans for her own future.[3] They rob her of her freedom![4]


Future Considerations:

             The situation for Korean women has been improving steadily since the end of the Chosôn Dynasty. Women today are slowly but steadily making inroads into areas traditionally reserved for men. By the time today¡¯s first graders grow up they will have considerably more freedoms than do the college graduates of today. The improvements for each consecutive generation, unfortunately, do not seem to be retroactively applicable to the previous generations. There is still a generation of middle aged women out there that are stuck at a lower level of freedom than that of their children. There seems to be no precedent in history for the passing back of new freedoms to past generations. Hopefully, the new generation¡¯s broader image of equality and freedom will in some way help to influence and educate the old.


             I would not dare to claim possession of a solution to the enormous obstacles facing Korean women in their search for personal financial independence, and the personal freedom to shape their lives that come with it. I do hope, however, that some of the barriers I have tried to bring to light will now be more easily recognizable to those women who are sincerely trying to overcome those obstacles.

             It has always been my experience that those who strive with all their heart for what they want, eventually get their wish. The few working women I interviewed tended to agree with me. It was their consensus that the educated Korean housewife does not want a career, that the sacrifices and loss of immediate personal freedoms (having to get up early, obeying a boss you may not like, or not being able to spend time with friends) do not outweigh any positive effects a career might bring. Without having conducted a study to confirm the validity of their beliefs, I cannot say definitively. If I were to rely on what I have been told by the many non-working interviewees, and the impressions they have given me, I would have to say I agree. It is my belief that the human spirit is unstoppable. Any person can achieve what they truly work hard for, and strive towards. If 91% of the educated Korean housewives wanted to engage in careers and they pursued that goal with ¡°single minded determination¡±, they would mostly succeed. They would also, quite likely, displace many male workers from their jobs. This may be one of the reasons behind some of the current government policies on education, and the lingering image of the Korean woman as a housewife and mother in the minds of Korean men.

             The absence of a large women¡¯s movement in Korea is another sign of the, as yet, underdeveloped consciousness of equality held by Korean women. While I was attending a symposium on women and work at Yonsei University I was struck by the small number of young women who were interested enough in the future of working women in Korea to attend. There was not, however, a shortage of young women exercising their ¡°femininity training¡± and  the ¡°charms¡± instilled in them by their mothers, just two blocks away in the coffee shops and restaurants where young women meet their future mates.


             As early as 1924, the Chosôn Yôsông Dong¡¯u-Hoe (Chosôn Women¡¯s Sisterhood Association) suggested that ¡°. . . women¡¯s liberation depended on economic independence . . . .¡±,[5] they couldn¡¯t have been more correct. Women in today¡¯s society say they cannot divorce even if they wanted to due to economic concerns. They are essentially financial prisoners[6] who cannot truly be liberated until they achieve economic independence.

             Since that was said in 1924, their have been many theories proposed that will supposedly cure the unequal treatment towards women in Korean society. One opinion suggested: Women are not born women but are socialized to be women. If all phases of society eliminate sex discrimination women can realize their full potential.[7] This is quite true, but who is going to eliminate sex discrimination in all phases of society? It will not happen by itself and nobody is going to do it for women as they sit on their hands. Changes in all phases of society can only be enacted by women, and the pressures they can bring to bear.

             Another theory suggests that: Women¡¯s liberation will require a reworking of the oppressive terms that shape the social attitudes towards women, and their role in society.[8] Again, a fine idea, and again, it will never happen unless women¡¯s collective voice makes it happen.

             All these ideas seem to miss the point that the changes will not start from the outside and work their way into the collective consciousness of women, but that ¡°Women¡¯s attitudes . . . have to precede their liberation from the conventional concept of women handed down to them from the past.¡±[9] In the west, society did not offer to eliminate sex discrimination at home, in schools, and in all other phases of society, and by so doing change women¡¯s attitudes. Neither did language change first, only to be followed by the attitudes of women. Women¡¯s attitudes changed first. Then the strength of their attitudes and actions, forced society to change.

             In Korean society too, liberation must follow the same course. Women¡¯s gender concepts and attitudes must change first. Then, and only then, can women¡¯s actions force changes in the society that will lead to women¡¯s liberation.

             Women also must sacrifice. The increase in the number of career opportunities for women will continue to be minimal until there is a large number of women who refuse to depend on a husband¡¯s economic support and loudly demand jobs with pay commensurate to men¡¯s. Men¡¯s attitudes towards marriage will also continue to resist change unless there is a large body of women who simply refuse to marry men with such archaic, repressive concepts of the Korean woman.



                  [1] The number of ¡°women who have never married¡±, instead of increasing as more women engage in careers and either postpone or decide against marriage, has actually decreased in Korea. From 27.8% of the population in 1980, to 26.9% in 1990. Korean Women¡¯s Development Institute, Korean Women Now, 12-13.

                  [2] Okpyo Moon, ¡°Urban Middle Class Wives in Korea¡± Korea Journal, 31.

                  [3] Chung, Socialization and Women in Korea, 178.

                  [4] To be free is expressed by Webster¡¯s as: ¡°Not restricted, controlled, or compelled by another; independent.¡± Korean women are ¡°compelled¡± to marry and, once married, to bear children; these children and their demands on their mothers ¡°control¡± women¡¯s lives while they raise a family. If they do choose to pursue a career, they find their choice of jobs is ¡°restricted¡± by the socio-economic structure; and the pervasive influence of Confucian values assures that they seldom become ¡°independent¡±. Webster¡¯s New School and Office Dictionary, newly rev. ed. (1974), s.v. ¡°Free.¡±

                  [5] Yung-Chung Kim, Women¡¯s Movement in Modern Korea, 95.

                  [6] Okpyo Moon, ¡°Urban Middle Class Wives in Korea¡± Korea Journal, 34.

                  [7] Chung, Socialization and Women in Korea, 188.

                  [8] Korean Women¡¯s Institute Series, Challenges for Women, 134.

                  [9] Yung-Chung Kim, Women¡¯s Movement in Modern Korea, 75.