On July 17, 1948, Article 9, Paragraph 1 of the South Korean Constitution read as follows: “All citizens shall be equal before the law and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic, social or cultural life on account of sex, religion, or social status.”
As forward-thinking as that was at the time, the reality for most Korean women was very different. Many of the cultural influences that poured into Korea over the next five decades would serve to prevent women from being free to function in their world without some type of male representation. The “traditional” gender roles were enforced then in much the same way as they are now, through family, education, religious beliefs and organizations, and the media at large.
The cult of female chastity that grew out of the ideal social states taught by Confucianism added to the problem of what is now termed “gender equality.” Confucius taught that a woman’s prime virtue was obedience, especially to men. Even into the 1990s, Korean women’s fight for equality was raging.
Two larger elements of Korean family law were even more damaging than the idea of a prime virtue: that of the legal family “head” system and the inability to marry a person with the same last name.
Surnames were once held to high importance because they showed, at a glance, the world at large where the family came from. This was more important during the Feudal Age (from the 1300’s) than they are today. Women are now permitted to chose whether they will take their husband’s last name or keep their maiden name. The new system allows women to pass their maiden names onto their children, should they choose. Children are permitted to accept their step-father’s last name should their mothers remarry. This is more inline with Western cultural thinking than older ideals. Adopted children may now be named with the surname of their adopted parent(s), allowing ties to their biological families to be legally broken.
Women were not allowed to remarry until six months after losing a spouse, regardless of the reason for the loss. In the case of remarriage, only the father of any children was permitted any rights regarding the children and their choices of which parent with whom they preferred to reside.
The legal family head system, or hojuje, was introduced into Korea through Japan in the late 1890s. This method of record keeping only permitted men to head families and affected how children inherited their surnames. Even more, however, this system discriminated against women in a larger way by ignoring the plain language guaranteeing that all Koreans are equal under the law.
By consistently defining a family as one headed by a man, women were stripped of their identity as rational adults. Starting in the 1960s, women called for changes to their country’s laws and began fighting for what was finally accepted in February 2005: a full revision of the Civil Code that eliminated many elements that forced women to be viewed by the culture at large as lower class citizens.
In conclusion, women in South Korea have waged a long uphill battle to gain the rights laid out in their own country’s constitution. Throughout the modern era, women around the world have fought this same battle: to be recognized as human beings in their own right and not children with no other abilities than to obey the patriarchy.