Korean Society and Women: Focusing on the Family

By Connie Chung ‘97


Women’s Studies has yet to be a major field of interest to the Korean public. Even today—a little over twenty years after the introduction of Women’s Studies in South Korea—there are still many who do not know exactly what Women’s Studies is. Like any unfamiliar concept, Women’s Studies has become only vaguely known through extreme, radical feminism; a substantial number see Women’s Studies as more of an excuse for a minority of women to wage a battle against men than as a serious academic discipline. Going beyond just the problem of gender discrimination, there are also those who hold the opinion that examining the specific problems pertaining to women—women’s issues—among more pressing problems of society as a whole is unnecessarily narrow and specialized.

But as much as there are social problems faced by Korean women reported by the Korean media these days, it may be of interest to see how Korean Women’s Studies expert view these problems. The problem of employment discrimination covered by the television program "The Perspective of the Young," women who get plastic surgery for their interviews, the existence of hospitals that prescribe diets for giving birth to sons, or the Daily Choson columnist Lee Kyu Tae’s prediction of the ‘rarity’ of women in the future (due to skewed birth ratio favoring males)—all these indicate that women’s issues are a subject of controversy. The Women’s movement was first formulated in Europe in the 18th century, and gained considerable momentum in the United States and Europe around the 1960s. Women’s Studies, however, was introduced relatively late in East Asian countries, such as South Korea. Even though Korea has industrialized since 1960 and resembles contemporary Western society in many respects, the relationship between Korean society and its women will be unique as long as Confucian social traditions and family norms remain.

Before discussing issues specific to Korean women, it may be useful to examine first what constitutes a women’s issue. Women’s Studies experts categorically define a women’s issue as "any case of oppression and discrimination that takes place economically, politically, systematically, ideologically, and sexually within society and family on the grounds of their sex" (Korean Women’s Research Institute p.3). In the 1960s, as student and minority movements became active in Europe and the United States and as women saw their demands repeatedly ignored, women opened their eyes to the reality of sexual discrimination. Thus, women regard women’s issues as a more serious societal problem over others and emphasize its special concerns. Two opinions as to how to best remedy these problems have emerged. One advocates that women’s issues are at the heart of society’s problems. It argues for the overthrow of men and battling male superiority and supports the formation of companies and communities consisting entirely of women. But this doctrine is limited by its belief that the source of inequality between the sexes is purely biological in nature. The second opinion views women’s issues as a phenomenon that is fundamentally intertwined with the issues of class and sex. Sexual segregation determines the hierarchy between men and women, and the emergence of class differences has influenced and exacerbated this domination over women. Besides these are many other theories on the matter, arising from various periods in history. Depending upon what one considers as the source of inequality, there are many theories argued and as many solutions suggested.

Nonetheless, there is no doubt that economics plays an important role in sexual inequality. In prehistoric times, when levels of production were at subsistence levels, experts believe that the sexes may have been equal. But the appearance of a surplus created economic inequality and made production an important component of society. In the emergence of a ruling hierarchy, men possessed the tools of production and his economic role was consequently enhanced. The ruling class, in order to maintain their class status and material possession through their blood line, made sure of their sons’ control over the means of production. Women gradually became a means of producing a son who could inherit the male wealth, and in this limited capacity helped to maintain the feudal cycle.

For the aristocratic women of the Choson period, strict enforcement of domestic isolation helped to stress the central core of their education: the importance of chastity and virtue over life itself. The typical house of an aristocratic family consisted of two main halls. Women lived in the innermost rooms of the hall, and their freedom to go outside was severely constrained. A woman going outside was at all times escorted by a servant, and at night, she veiled her face in the light. The account of a woman who, due to the absence of her servant, died in her burning house serves to provide a dramatic example of the stringency of these rules of conduct. Moreover, to prevent even the slightest chance of a woman losing her chastity, elaborate codes of behavior were developed. "Even cousins, if older than 10 years, should not socialize too closely at one spot…even brothers and sisters should not chatter idly… do not allow outsiders to glimpse at one’s garments…do not sit together in one spot with guests---young guests not withstanding…do not stare or peer too closely at even acquaintances…do not glance at another’s hands…etc" (Seo Jin Young 65).

Industrialization in the 1960s brought about extensive structural changes in the Korean economy and transformed Korea into a modern capitalist nation, but a capitalistic society from the perspective of Women’s Studies, is a market economy where all products are commercialized and exchanged. A society that commercializes the labor of human beings sustains itself in the following pattern: a minority consisting of capitalists owns most of the means of production, and a majority consisting of workers must sell their labor in the market. In this scheme, women take on the role of producing labor in order to sustain the capitalistic society. Their daily function is domestic labor for the family, providing food and clothes, and maintaining the house. Experts believe that capitalists exploit the conditions for maximal gain by encouraging the women to perform the task of reproducing without compensation. Such "reproduction of the labor class" includes, of course, the role of women as birth-givers. To those of us outside the academic arena, such an analysis seems to offer too systematic and impersonal a perspective, but scholars have thus described the conditions borne of the relationship between capitalism and women. The analysis above focuses on the economic status of women, but another aspect of a woman’s societal function can be deduced from the relationship between women and their families. All human beings are born in into a family framework, and the family relationship is subsequently the most basic among human relationships. In addition, the family is one of the fundamental units of society, one of the very central influencing units of society’s values. The present day Korean family is largely the combined result of Confucian family norms and traditions on the one hand, and the capitalistic industrialization established of the 1960s on the other. The negative aspects of these Confucian family traditions can be summarized in the undemocratic nature of the marriage bond and the patriarchal nature of the family unit. While Confucianism has conferred many strengths to the composition of Korean society, Confucianism’s less than positive impact upon the formation of women’s positions in Korean society cannot be denied.

The undemocratic nature of the traditional Korean family arrangement (expressed in the old saying, "If the hen cries, the house is ruined") maintains that men should have authority over the household. The famous Confucian scholar Yi To’gye writes in Kyu Joong Yo Ram, "Among men, there are the kind-hearted, the wise, the foolish and cowardly, the diseased, and the cruel. After she is bound to her husband in a union, a woman should devote her entire self, no matter how infinite the pain and the suffering." Of course, it is ideal for a married couple to live together in mutual trust and dependence, but a woman may have no choice but to live in unquestioning obedience to her husband. If the women were to possess a degree of equality with the man or autonomy in the family, the threat thus posed to a patriarchal family arrangement is construed as a danger to the family unit as a whole. This dominance ideology assumes that the decline of a father-centered family automatically signals the ruin of the entire family; thus what is good for the father is assumed to represent the advantage of the entire family. According to a 1985 poll taken by the Korean Women’s Improvement Center, 89.1% of urban males and 76.3% of urban females supported the statement, "The wife should follow her husband," while only 9.7% of males and 21.9% of females opposed it.

This kind of gendered bias is promoted and prolonged by the sentiment that women are somehow deficient or inferior to men. Assuming that the status of men in society is higher and more valuable than that of women, social segregation based on gender has prescribed gender roles in all aspects of daily life, even the most trivial. Gendered social segregation is reflected in the popular saying, "Men should not speak on domestic matters, and women should not speak on outside affairs." This bias is rooted in the belief that men and women are inherently different in character and ability, and that this difference favors the male; the female is the "weaker sex of the species." These perceptions delegate such qualities as wisdom, courage, leadership, tenacity, and cool-headed reason to men, while reserving prudence, sacrifice, selflessness, patience, and overabundance of sensibility to women. Setting up a strict dichotomy between the sexes, the gender segregation in Korean society, requires that each sex possess the qualities of one category but none of the other.

Of course, such ideologies are based on old-fashioned concepts, and we may not be able to determine how ingrained they actually are in society. There are always many exceptions to the accepted standards, and these pronounced ideologies alone cannot describe fully the relationship between women and society. The heavy emphasis placed on the repressive nature of the relationship between society and women, as reflected in Korean literature, may indeed be one of the shortcomings of Women’s Studies.

After the 1960’s, the relatively rapid industrialization in Korea allowed women to attain some degree of civic participation and recognition. Women’s Studies experts argue, however, that ironically, the situation of women may actually have worsened. The openings provided by economic growth were not wide enough to allow genuine, lasting improvements in the status of women, but served rather to saddle women with the double burden of fulfilling both the expectations of a wage earner and a traditional housewife. Compared to other countries, Korea is relatively underdeveloped in commercialized domestic services, exacerbating the situation for employed housewives.

In contrast, full-time housewives experience a different kind of hardship in an industrialized society, especially in the case of middle class housewives who are economically and psychologically dependent on their husbands. The psychological conflict they feel arises largely because their household work is completely ignored or considered cheap by their own family and by society.

Another cause of the worsened situation lies in modern changes in the family life cycle. According to a World Health Organization’s subdivision of the family life cycle, there are six important phases. The first phase is the time of marriage to the birth of the first child (formative phase); the second phase lasts until the birth of the last child (expansionary phase); the third phase continues until the first child marries (completion of expansionary phase); the fourth lasts until all of the children in the family are married (recessionary phase); the fifth ends with the death of the spouse (completion of the recessionary phase); and finally, the sixth lasts until the death of the individual. The rise in the average marrying age, the decrease in birth rate, and the rise in average life expectancy have all contributed to reducing the span of the expansionary phase which includes the birth of the children and their early care; on the other hand, the same factors have prolonged the completion of expansionary phase, requiring more concern fort he children’s education and their coming of age. Because early relief from her duties to her children provides the woman with more time for herself, the changes in the family life cycle have greater implications for females than for males. Modern Korean society fails to provide married women with opportunities for community participation or labor rights, with the exception of volunteer services and other non-compensatory jobs. Under such societal constraints, the energy of Korean housewives emerges disproportionately in their over-anxious concern for the rearing and education of their children.

However, the employment rate of housewives continues to rise gradually; in 1987, the percentage of employed housewives was 44.7%. One of the major problems facing the modern woman is the exhausting physical and mental stress due to the combined labor for society and for the household, adding up to, in many cases, thirteen to fourteen hours a day. Another related problem is child care. Korea’s equal employment opportunity law for men and women states in article 12, "To continue to promote the employment of women workers in industry, facilities for child nursing and care should be provided." The reality, however, falls grossly short of the expectations that a simple reading of the law might raise. A 1991 study reports that industry-based day care centers number only twelve nationwide.

But the problem is far more deeply rooted than a simple scarcity of child care centers. Korean society, to a large extend, still assumes that "the mother’s first duty is to raise the child, and no one else can substitute for the mother" (Seo Jin Young 139). Thus, even if the number of day-care centers were to increase the mother would still be left feeling guilty. Leaving her child in the care of a substitute, the society tells her, can never equal the quality of her own care. Of course, it may be reasonable to expect that a child growing under the care of strangers or left alone while the mother works may develop problems not faced by "properly mothered" children. However, the widely held notion that the mother alone should be responsible for the well-being of a child’s emotional and educational growth is a prejudiced fallacy indeed. Gong Ji Young, in her novel Go Alone, Like the Horn of a Rhino (based on the well-known tale of a mother who searches for her child kidnapped by a demon) asks, "When the demon took the baby, where was everyone else? The baby’s father? The relatives? How about the society? What was everyone else doing? Why was the woman the only one feeling the pain of eyes gouged out and thorns in her feet? " (Gong Ji Young 231).

As women attain equality of status with men in society, many problems including that of child rearing arise. These problems are not issues unique to women, but general concerns of society as a whole; they should be examined not by a few women but by various individuals making up the different sectors of society. It is easy to enact materialistic modernization; it takes a second to replace an old black and white television with a new color model, for instance, or to use washing machines in place of hand washing. But unconsciously rooted prejudices that have been cherished for a long time are not so easily removed, for both women and men. Freeing oneself from ingrained bias and accepting women’s issues as problems that society must confront as a whole may be the first step toward a solution.



Gong Ji Young, "Go Alone, Like the Horn of a Rhino," Moon Yeh Ma Dang. 1993.

Seo Jin Young. "Why Can’t a Woman?" Dong Nyuk. 1991.

Korean Women’s Research Center. "About Women’s Studies," Dong Nyuk. 1991.

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