The situation with gender inequality has existed in South Korea for many years. Some people even said that it was effective to beat women to make them obedient. Such an attitude of men towards them, especially their exploitation as free working force at plants and factories, evoked the feeling of protest in women. The mass people’s movement for women’s liberation, which was called the minjung movement, was followed by another one, organized by women who wanted to have equal rights with men. Such gender issues caused many problems in society, which caused the slow development of democratic legislature in the country. Thus, society, where women were treated like slaves, could not develop normally and it needed significant changes in its legislature. Consequently, various practices of gender protest in Korea emerged since the problem of women’s discrimination had slowed down the process of democratization and progress in South Korea’s society.
The Events that Led to the Changes in South Korea’s Mentality
The first women’s movement in Korea was based on two principles. Thus, the first one was the attitude of women to the minjung movement and another one – the problem of gender issues in South Korea’s society. While women’s labor was extensively used during the building of the capital of South Korea, their needs and problems left unattended. Nevertheless, their struggles drew the attention and support of the progressive democratic movement. This movement led to the formation of various women’s organizations and coalitions that fought for equal rights for men and women. As gender and class intersected with each other, the movement aimed to defend the rights of the most oppressed women who lived in poor urban and rural areas (Nam, 2000). The core of the minjung movement was the idea that women represented as “the oppressed of the oppressed” (Nam, 2000, p. 99). According to the minjung ideology, the greatest problem of Korean society was the oppression of the laboring masses. It was impossible to build a democratic state with such a national identity that was seen in the lives and culture of Korean people, especially women. The members of the minjung movement included such oppressed population as students, intellectuals, workers, and women, in particular.
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Stages of Women’s Movement
Women’s movement began to develop rapidly, and it had two stages. First, female workers at factories organized democratic unions, and after this, such a movement took practical, theoretical, and organizational forms (Nam, 2000). Primarily, this movement was organized by women who worked in the textiles, electronics, plastics, food, and other industries. Even though those women contributed to the development of heavy industry, they faced plenty of challenges such as low wages, sexual harassment, and physical abuse (Nam, 2000). They had no other choice since they had to support their families financially and pay for the education of their relatives. Women worked long shifts and lived in dormitory barracks. All of this led to the fact that South Korea had the longest working week and the highest rate of industrial accidents in the world (Nam, 2000). Such an attitude towards women caused the formation of the democratic union movement where female workers gained victory and elected a woman as their union president. This event changed the history of South Korea completely since for the first time, a woman was able to occupy a leadership position and keep the union democratic. The feministic movement and the minjung movement marked the beginning of the new period in South Korea and formed the foundation for democratic society.
Women’s Place in South Korean Patriarchic Society
South Korean society was patriarchic, and because of gender and class inequality, it was too hard to build democratic unions and provide all citizens with equal rights. The government did not pay attention to the rebellions of female workers. Instead, the government forces tried to suppress these riots, thus repressing women’s rights further. Thus, dictator Pak Chung Hee was interested in eliminating such rebellions (Nam, 2000). Only after his death, the country received a chance for a democratic development, but this hope was short-lived since soon, rebellions were suppressed and many people were killed. The situation did not improve even in the 1990s. Women worked as slaves and received only 50% of men’s salaries. Society had a traditionalist belief that a woman’s sole duty was her family, so she had to stay at home and wait for her husband from work. However, many women had to work long hours to support their children and families. All of this made the life of even married women impossible. In South Korea, poor women lived in marriage but without any wedding ceremony because of lack of money for such a celebration. Thus, the Korean Women Workers Association (KWWA) fought against gender discrimination and advocated the sharing of household duties between women and men equally (Nam, 2000). The formation of this association became a breakout in the situation with female workers’ protests.
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Women’s Organizations and Their Demands
Women’s protests were based on their demands to change their situation. Thus, women demanded to improve their working conditions as they needed leaves on menstruation days, maternity and breast-feeding leave. Many women were victims of sexual harassment and violence. Therefore, the first innovation of KWWA in 1993 was a childcare center and playroom for workers’ children. This center offered various trainings and provided women with educational materials and comic books, which helped to form “democratic unions” and “democratic families” (Ching & Louie, 1995, p. 417). During the 20th century, women struggled for their rights and freedoms in a bid to build democratic society, where they could enjoy equal rights with men. Nevertheless, many women still felt oppressed and discriminated in the workplace. It was not an easy task to change the mentality of South Korean society as well as the attitude of men towards women and their place in the community. Women still struggle for equality at different working positions because in some firms or enterprises, they can be fired by the owner without any financial or moral compensation. South Korean women workers’ organizations are also connected with other groups in Asia, and they invite them to participate in the Committee for Asian Women (Ching & Louie, 1995). Korea was one of the first countries with such feministic movements.
Feministic movements led to the process of democratization, but it was quite slow due to sexual and other physical violence, to which the police subjected women. The government did not take any measures to stop such an abuse, which caused a new wave of protests. Furthermore, women developed the process of democratization process in South Korea in many ways. For example, on June 18, 1987, they organized a protect act regarding environmental and humanitarian issues, connected with political democracy (Ching & Louie, 1995). Such issues as maternity protection, childcare problems, equal wages, and sexual violence were the most important ones for feminists. Another way to fight for democracy was wearing white headscarves during demonstrations. These were used as a symbol of women’s fury and sorrow, which attracted the attention of mass media and the public. Moreover, it became a symbol of South Korean women’s fights for democracy (Ching & Louie, 1995). Third, the movements of women helped the country to transit to the democratic way of governing as the democratic labor unions obtained more strength in 1987 (Ching & Louie, 1995). Such unions were the basis of women’s struggle for democracy.
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For many years, South Korea’s society had problems with democracy since the patriarchal way of ruling was rather strong and deeply rooted within society. Women were oppressed by men, but their protests and movement marked the beginning of democratic developments in the country. Many feminist movements did not succeed in their aspirations, but without them, South Korea could have remained a state without democracy. The problem of gender discrimination slowed the progress in South Korean society because the democratic way of governing required equal rights of women and men as well as the equal sharing of duties between them. Therefore, women struggled for better conditions of life and democratic society to achieve their goals.