Changing Role of Women

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.

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