Changing Role of Women
During the Koryo and early Choson Dynasties, it was customary
for the married couple to live in the wife's parents' household.
This arrangement suggests that the status of women was then
higher than it was later during most of the Choson Dynasty. Neo-
Confucian orthodoxy dictated that the woman, separated from her
parents, had a primary duty of providing a male heir for her
husband's family. According to Confucian custom, once married, a
woman had to leave her parents' household permanently and then
occupy the lowest position in her husband's family. She was often
abused and mistreated by both her mother-in-law and sisters-in-
law--at least until the birth of a son gave her some status in
her husband's family. The relationship between wife and husband
was often, if not usually, distant, aptly described by the Korean
proverb: "By day, like seeing a stranger; by night, like seeing a
lover." Choson Dynasty law prohibited widows from remarrying,
though a similar prohibition was not extended to widowers.
Further, the sons and grandsons of widows who defied the ban,
like children of secondary wives, were not allowed to take the
civil service examinations and become scholar-officials.
The duty of a woman to her husband, or rather to her
husband's family, was absolute and unquestionable. In the
traditional society, only men could obtain a divorce. A husband
could divorce his spouse if she were barren--barrenness being
defined simply as the inability to bear sons. Even if a husband
did not divorce his wife, he had the right to take a second wife,
although the preferred solution for a man without a son during
the Choson Dynasty was to adopt a son of one of his brothers, if
available. The incompatibility of a wife and her in-laws was
another ground for divorce.
In contemporary society, both men and women have the right to
obtain a divorce. Social and economic discrimination, however,
make the lot of divorced women more difficult. The husband may
still demand custody of the children, although a revision of the
Family Law in 1977 made it more difficult for him to coerce or to
deceive his wife into agreeing to an unfair settlement. The rate
of divorce in South Korea is increasing rapidly. In 1975 the
number of divorces was 17,000. In the mid-1980s, the annual
number of divorces was between 23,000 and 26,000, and in 1987
there were 45,000 divorces.
The tradition of total female submission persisted in Korean
villages until relatively recent times. One Korean scholar who
came from the conservative Ch'ungch'ong region south of Seoul
recalled that when a high school friend died of sickness during
the 1940s, his young bride committed suicide. Her act was
commemorated in her own and the surrounding communities as an
outstanding example of devotion to duty.
Traditionally, men and women were strictly segregated, both
inside and outside the house. Yangban women spent most of
their lives in seclusion in the women's chamber. It is said that
the traditional pastime of nolttwigi, a game of jumping up
and down on a seesaw-like contraption, originated among bored
women who wanted to peek over the high walls of their family
compounds to see what the outside world was like. Economic
necessity gave women of the lower classes some freedom as they
participated in farm work and sometimes earned supplemental
income through making and selling things.
A small minority of women played an active role in society
and even wielded political influence. These people included
female shamans (mudang), who were called upon to cure
illnesses, tell fortunes, or in other ways enlist the help of
spirits in realizing the wishes of their clients. Despite its
sponsorship of neo-Confucianism, the Choson Dynasty had an office
of shamanism, and female shamans often were quite influential in
the royal palace. The female physicians who treated female
patients (because male physicians were forbidden to examine them)
constituted another important group of women. Sometimes they
acted as spies or policewomen because they could get into the
female quarters of a house. Still another group of women were the
kisaeng. Some kisaeng, or entertainers, were merely
prostitutes; but others, like their Japanese counterparts the
geisha, were talented musicians, dancers, painters, and poets and
interacted on nearly equal terms with their male patrons. The
kisaeng tradition perpetuated one of the more dubious
legacies of the Confucian past: an extreme double standard
concerning the sexual behavior of married men and women that
still persists. In the cities, however, many middle class women
have begun to break with these traditions.
An interesting regional variation on traditional female roles
continued in the late 1980s. In the coastal villages of Cheju
Island, women divers swam in search of seaweed, oysters, and
other marine products and were economically self-sufficient.
Often they provided the main economic support for the family
while the husband did subsidiary work--took care of the children
and did household chores--in sharp contrast to the Confucian
norm. The number of women divers was dwindling, however, and men
were increasingly performing jobs in service industries.
Confucian ancestor worship was rarely practiced while female-
centered shamanistic rites were widespread.
The factories of South Korea employ hundreds of thousands of
young women on shop floors and assembly lines making, among other
things, textiles and clothes, shoes, and electronic components.
South Korea's economic success was bought in large measure with
the sweat of these generally overworked and poorly paid female
laborers. In the offices of banks and other service enterprises,
young women working as clerks and secretaries are indispensable.
Unlike their sisters on Cheju Island, however, the majority of
these women work only until marriage.
Although increasing numbers of women work outside the home,
the dominant conception, particularly for the college-educated
middle class, is that the husband is the "outside person," the
one whose employment provides the main source of economic
support; the wife is the "inside person," whose chief
responsibility is maintenance of the household. Women tend to
leave the labor force when they get married. Many women manage
the family finances, and a large number join kye, informal
private short-term credit associations that give them access to
funds that might not be obtainable from a conventional bank.
Probably the most important responsibility of married women is
the management of their children's education.
On the surface, Korean women often appear docile, submissive,
and deferential to the wishes of their husbands and in-laws. Yet
behind the scenes, there is often considerable "hidden" female
power, particularly within the private sphere of the household.
In areas such as household finances, South Korean husbands
usually defer to their wives' judgment. Public assertion of a
woman's power, however, is socially disapproved, and a
traditional wife maintained the image, if not the reality of
submissiveness. And, as in other male-dominated societies, Korean
men often jokingly complain that they are henpecked.
In traditional Korean society, women received little formal
education. Christian missionaries began establishing schools for
girls during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Ehwa Woman's University, the most prestigious women's
institution, began as a primary school established by Methodist
missionaries in 1886 and achieved university status after 1945.
Chongsin Girls' School and Paehwa Girls' School were founded in
1890 and 1898, respectively, in Seoul. Songui Girls' School was
established in 1903 in P'yongyang. By 1987 there were ten
institutions of higher education for women including
universities, colleges, and junior colleges; women accounted for
approximately 28 percent of total enrollment in higher education.
There were approximately 262,500 women students in colleges and
universities in 1987. However, only about 16 percent of college
and university teachers were women in 1987.
The growing number of women receiving a college education has
meant that their sex role differs from that of their mothers and
grandmothers. Many college-educated women plan independent
careers and challenge the right of parents to choose a marriage
partner. The often fierce battles between university students and
police during the late 1980s included female participants. A
correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review quoted a
male student leader as saying that "short girls make great
demonstrators, as they're very tough and very hard to catch."
Whether politically active South Korean university women will
follow their Japanese counterparts, who demonstrated during the
1960s and 1970s, into a world of childraising and placid
consumerism remains to be seen. The number of employed married
women, however, increased by approximately 12.6 percent annually
in the years since 1977.
In 1983 more women--51.8 percent--were employed in rural
areas than in urban areas--37.9 percent. Most of the women
working in rural areas were over the age of thirty, as young
females (and males) tended to move to, and seek employment in,
cities and industrial areas.
Official South Korean statistics indicated that 43.6 percent
of women were in the work force by 1988. Prospects for lower
class women, however, were frequently grim. In some cases, they
were obliged to become part of the "entertainment industry" in
order to survive economically. According to one estimate,
brothels, bars, massage parlors, discos, and what are known as
"Taiwan style" barbershops (that is, those often employing a
greater number of masseuses than barbers) employed as many as 1
million women, though not all were prostitutes. This underworld
of abuse, exploitation, and bitter shame had begun to be
criticized and exposed by women's activists.
Data as of June 1990