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[Lee Kyong-hee] Legacy of a pioneer feminist thinker and activist

The news of the death of famed feminist scholar and activist Lee Hyo-jae last week brought back a memory from the early 1980s. I met her briefly at the house of a friend of mine, where she was hiding, in the wake of the civil uprising in Gwangju. She was among the pro-democracy intellectuals wanted by the Chun Doo-hwan regime, which had concocted a case against them for supporting the then opposition politician Kim Dae-jung’s “sedition and conspiracy.”

It was a precarious time as the authoritarian regime strictly censored the news media. The public remained in the dark, devoid of information about what was actually happening in the country. My encounter with Prof. Lee was short and she managed to remain undetected at my friend’s home.

Recalling my fleeting encounter with Prof. Lee, I cannot help but think how fortunate Korean women of today are and how much we are indebted to a generation of trailblazers like her. Thanks to their pioneering efforts, the roles and status of Korean women in their family and society are far different nowadays. There are many more opportunities for education and social participation, though the glass ceiling still exists at various levels.

There also are flip sides to the outsized gains. Women who have risen to powerful positions are not immune to brazen-faced dishonesty and abuse of authority. They obviously indulge in power and privilege without caring how their unscrupulous behavior might impact the opportunities of other women aspiring for public service, not to mention the country and society at large. This is an issue deserving of attention as a female cabinet minister or legislator is still a rarity in this country. Their misbehavior can incite more public scorn, derision and second-guessing about their suitability than male cohorts.

Unfortunately, they don’t seem to realize that they would not have reached their positions solely on their own merit. As a public office holder as well as an individual woman, they owe an enormous debt to feminist leaders of previous generations who struggled to dismantle time-worn gender barriers.

In this regard, the quote on the cover of the latest biography of Lee Hyo-jae, with the subtitle “A Living History of Women’s Movement in the Republic of Korea,” is quite telling. It says, “Among women who are living today, there is not a single person who doesn’t owe Lee Hyo-jae.” Overly ostentatious as it may sound, the statement contains much truth.

Lee Hyo-jae was at the vanguard of nearly every major movement to enhance women’s rights in Korea for four decades from 1958 to 1997, the year she returned to her second hometown Jinhae, South Gyeongsang Province. She lived there until her death, guiding community activities of women and children.

In 1957, Lee returned from the United States, where she studied sociology at the University of Alabama and the graduate schools of Columbia University and the University of California, Berkeley. The following year, she joined the newly established Department of Sociology at Ewha Womans University. She opened a women’s studies course at Ewha in 1977, the first in Korea, which led to the establishment of the women’s studies program at the graduate school in 1981.

Her students became a powerful cadre of feminist leaders, who would later serve in important posts under liberal governments. But Lee herself avoided politics.

Instead, she led a series of movements to improve women’s status and opportunities across our society. All of the movements marked major milestones in the modern history of Korean women. Most notable were campaigns to abolish deep-rooted patriarchal customs and revise related laws. Major targets were family-related provisions in the Civil Code, such as the male-only family head system and discrimination against wives and daughters in property inheritance. The same retirement age for women as that for men, equal pay for equal work and quotas for female employment were monumental achievements.

None of these movements led to easy resolution. Some took decades and others required years of persistent struggle against prejudices and objections.

Among the knotty issues that remain unresolved is that of “comfort women,” or the victims of Imperial Japan’s World War II military sexual slavery system. Along with her colleague professor, Yun Chung-ok, who had probed the concealed issue over many years, Lee led the movement during its early years as co-representative of the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan.

The council, founded in 1990, was a joint initiative of 37 women’s organizations. In 2015, it merged with a foundation to form the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan. Among its objectives was to annul the Korea-Japan government agreement concerning the issues that year. The recent scandal surrounding a council representative’s diversion of public donations to the organization is a stunning betrayal tarnishing the spirit of the campaign.

Born to Christian philanthropist parents in 1924, when Korea was a colony of Japan, Lee naturally was drawn to women suffering under the dual yokes of native patriarchal traditions and colonial oppression and exploitation. As a sociology professor in liberated Korea, her primary concern was women’s status at home and in society, which led to her dedication for a true democracy. Under military dictatorships, she found that women were still oppressed on multiple fronts. This perspective eventually led her to expound “sociology of division.”

“All political, economic and cultural limitations occurring under conditions sustaining national division suppress our desires to live actively and peacefully as human beings and force us to lead regretful lives. Therefore, without overcoming division, it will be impossible to build a new society,” she wrote in “Theory and Reality of Women’s Liberation.” (Changbi Publishers, 1979)

“Unless women cultivate correct judgment of political circumstances from the viewpoint of national history, they may easily be mobilized for a certain purpose domestically and internationally toward perpetuating division or undermining the advancement of human history,” she said.

Women leaders today should heed Lee’s advice and carefully calibrate their actions rather than plunge headfirst into reckless gladiatorial politics. 

Lee Kyong-hee
Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. She is currently editor-in-chief of Koreana, a quarterly magazine of Korean culture and arts, published by the Korea Foundation. -- Ed.