The Korea Herald


Following footsteps of pioneers in women’s history

By 윤민식

Published : Aug. 16, 2015 - 18:24

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When Chinese-born Oh Hee-ock moved to Korea in 1946, a year after her country was liberated from the Japanese colonial rule, she was determined to continue her education and get a job. Born in 1926 to China-based Korean independence activists in today’s Manchuria, she had studied English and Chinese as well as Korean, while participating in her parents’ fierce military activism starting at age 14.

Now 89, Oh is a retired teacher and a recognized independence activist. “My father emphasized the importance of education for me and my sister. Even when he was imprisoned by the Japanese, he would send my mother letters from jail to make sure she sent us to school no matter how difficult the circumstances were,” she said. “Not many girls at the time had the privilege of having a father like that.”

Oh’s life story ― the former activist worked as a teacher full-time for 37 years from 1954-1991 while raising her three children ― contrasts and resonates with the younger generation of today’s Korea, where twice as many women as men still experience career disruptions. Only 50 percent of all women participate in the workforce, in spite of their high levels of education.

According to scholar Joo Jae-seon’s latest research for Korea Women’s Development Institute, the number of Korean high school girls who enrolled in post-secondary education increased dramatically by 40.3 percentage points, from 34.3 percent in 1965 to 74.6 percent last year. 

Korea`s first nurses Kim Martha (right) and Lee Grace (Korean Nurses Association) Korea`s first nurses Kim Martha (right) and Lee Grace (Korean Nurses Association)

Despite their rising education levels, Korean women’s employment rate increased by just 15.2 percentage points in 1963-2014, from 34.3 percent to 49.5 percent. The average amount of hours a married woman spent on domestic affairs daily also decreased by only 32 minutes since 1999 until last year, from four hours and 30 minutes to four hours and 18 minutes.

“As South Korea experienced rapid economic development, Korean parents very quickly embraced the idea that they should educate their daughters as much as their sons,” said Joo.

“But the idea of their daughters getting a paid job was a different matter. Even until the 1990s, the general notion was that a woman’s primary duty, regardless of her education level, was to nurture her children well. As the statistics show, Korea is not making good use of its high-equality human resources because of the still-existing gender inequality.”

Activist Oh’s life story, along with the ones of other women advocates for Korean independence, is being featured at a special exhibition commemorating the 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation in Seoul. The women’s achievements are not only important to Korea’s modern history, but also give a significant meaning to today’s Korean feminism and the pursuit of gender parity, experts said.

“Korea’s gender equality certainly still has a long way to go,” said Lee Sung-sook, the director of the National Women’s History Exhibition Hall. “But without figures like Oh ― there were many remarkable women who fought against inequality in this country ― we wouldn’t have the foundation for changes that need to be made in the future.”

As Lee pointed out, Oh wasn’t the only pioneering woman in Korea’s modern history. Almost 20 years before Oh was born, Kim Martha, a former abused housewife, became the first Korean nurse in history. Before her husband disappeared on her with their two children, the fingers of her right hand and her nasal bone were cut off by her jealous spouse with a knife. Lee never got to see her children after her husband left her.

Despite her disabilities, she managed to get a job as a maid at a hospital run by American doctors and missionaries, and was eventually admitted as a student at Korea’s first nursing school and became a nurse upon her graduation in 1908.

Her colleague, Lee Grace, had been a servant for an aristocratic family and had been walking with a hobble after suffering a childhood disease that was left untreated. Lee’s leg fully recovered after treatment by American surgeons, and she decided to study nursing. She became Korea’s first nurse, along with Kim after graduating from the Pogunyogwan Training School for Nurses, which is now the division of nursing science at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

“The two women’s achievements are monumental,” said Kim Ok-soo, director of the Korean Nurses Association. “At the time, almost all Korean women lacked access to education and were therefore illiterate. They were not allowed to make their own life decisions. But Lee and Kim went against the social norms in spite of their class status and disabilities. They were two of the very first Korean women who voluntarily chose to have a specialized career that required very specific skills and training.”

In 1952, Korea welcomed its first woman lawyer, Lee Tai-young (1914-1998). Throughout her life, she fought against domestic violence against women, and called for the abolishment of Korea’s now-defunct, male-centric family registration system, which did not allow women to register their children under their own family name.

This meant the children’s names could not be changed even if their mother was remarried after being divorced or widowed, and therefore weren’t allowed to be added as dependents to their stepfather’s insurance plan and other social benefits. The old system was abolished in 2005, more than 50 years after Lee spoke out against it for the first time in 1953.

Four years after Lee passed her bar exam, Korea’s first fashion designer, Nora Noh, held the country’s first fashion show in Seoul in 1956. Noh, whose initial first name was Myung-ja, changed her name to Nora at age 19, after ending a marriage of convenience that helped her avoid becoming a “comfort women” to Japanese soldiers. Her inspiration was the protagonist of Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 play “A Doll’s House,” named Nora, who leaves her children and husband to discover herself.

Since her launch of Korea’s first ready-to-wear clothing line in 1963, countless high-profile women have worn Noh’s design known for its simple lines and elegance, including Yuk Young-soo, the former first lady and mother of current Korean president Park Geun-hye.

One of Noh’s many achievements in her remarkable career that lasted more than three decades since the 1950s was the introduction of miniskirts in the 1960s which became a national sensation. When a female congresswoman asked her, “Shouldn’t women whose legs aren’t pretty avoid wearing miniskirts?” Noh famously replied: “Should women hide their faces with a veil if their faces aren’t pretty?”

Yet Noh, lawyer Lee and nurses Lee and Kim were exceptions in their times, and still are today. According to an annual Gender Gap report released last year by the World Economic Forum, Korea ranked 117th out of 142 countries, scoring worst of all in terms of women’s participation in the nation’s political sector. The number of women in the National Assembly, which stood at 47, accounted for just 15.7 percent of all lawmakers 2012.

Lee from the National Women’s History Exhibition Hall said leadership education for women could help combating Korea’s still-existing gender inequality, which is most prevalent in the nation’s labor market and in politics above all else.

“I think leadership hasn’t been emphasized as a core value in schools, especially among young school girls in Korea,” she said. “But it’s one of the most important skills once you are out of school and participate in the workforce. More young women should be trained as future leaders. And once more women are in managerial and administrative positions, more changes are likely to be made.” 

By Claire Lee (