Throughout the Korean history, men’s dominance was conditioned whereas women were treated as second-best regardless of their social status or familial position. The reason for this is deeply rooted within the Confucian tradition, which was fundamental in term of its vast implementation during the Choson dynasty. The colonial era can be characterized by the prominent role of men within the Korean society, as well. Meanwhile, the development of modernity has led to the invention of the image of the Korean ‘new woman’. The traditional perception of women and their principal roles was augmented in accordance with the emergent modern trends. However, the society gradually evolves, and the historical circumstances have caused the reconsideration of women’s status and rights.
During the Choson dynasty, the society was strictly patriarchal. The emergence of a male-oriented moral system that governs family relations was focused on the establishment of several regulations governing women’s lives, including their lifestyles, marriage, inheritance and ancestral rites. There were strict codes of behavior for the upper classes, which were based on the regulation of gender relations in accordance with the neo-Confucianism ideals. Thus, women’s ability to engage in social activities was severely curtailed due to these measures.
As the male-oriented system became firmly entrenched, women assumed an increasingly subordinate role within the family. According to Cumings, the daughter was a significant link in terms of forming family alliances, although she did not merit a name before she was betrothed. After being married, a woman moved to the house of her husband’s family and was regarded as being the lowest in status, until she gave birth to a male heir. Marriage was not about love between men and wife as family alliances were created to a high degree of accuracy based on wealth, social status as well as perpetuation of both over time. Furthermore, a traditional polygamy was maintained; thus, a man could have several wives in case he was able to support each of them. The other women were supposed to live separately, since only one could stay in the house and run a household. Moreover, a man was not condemned if he decided to go to a whorehouse. As for nobility, there could have been several women within a single house, but there were only one who was in charge of the household. Each of these women had a separate apartment, where she was visited by the master of the house in case he desired. In terms of a divorce, a man could dismiss his wife, even if he had already begot several children with her. Consequently, he could take another wife, whereas women had no such privilege. Moreover, the marriage of the upper class women could not be dissolved; otherwise children, who were born during a second marriage, were no longer considered being members of the upper class (Cumings 63). Among the tools, which were used to oppress women by discriminating against them, were the prohibition of women’s remarriage and the increased emphasis on the concept of the virtuous woman. During the Choson dynasty, this type of social system prevailed. Hamel asserts, “This nation treats their women as no more than female slaves, whom they can renounce on account of a trifle”.
During the colonial era, Korea became the provider of workforce for Japan. Moreover, there were established specific quotas for comfort women who were mobilized by colonial authorities. The issue of sexual slavery remained covered up by Japan for a considerable period of time, but it was also ignored by the Korean government. The reason for this concealment was an attempt to avoid interior conflicts, since many women were mobilized by Korean men. However, the upper class women managed to escape this destiny as they have always led a lifestyle, which was based on their social status. There is a notion that in case there were not only girls from poor families, who were involved in these sufferings, the issue would not have been concealed for so many years.
However, modernity, which still causes a wide range of debates, was introduced within the country during the Japan’s colonization of Korea. The new social trends have led to the emergence of the ‘new woman’ concept as well as reconsideration of gender relationships, family and marriage issues. The literature of the colonial period specifically emphasizes the paradox of the Korean women’s status. Besides the fact that their choice of activities became diverse to a considerable degree, it rarely influenced or improved women’s social status or role. The better educational opportunities made women want to experience the freedom to its full extent. Therefore, the old social system came into collision with modernity.
During the Choson dynasty and the colonial era, the image of a woman was mainly limited to a perception of a ‘good wife’ and ‘good mother’. Despite the fact that all women were expected to marry, bear and raise children as their basic duty, the types of labor and lifestyle which they led varied in accordance with their status.
Consequently, the mentioned historic events have caused irreversible changes within the society. New era allowed broadening the possibilities of women by granting them the opportunities they were deprived of in the past. Their status, role and rights have changed. However, it is essential to emphasize that when compared to the majority, the upper class women have always enjoyed better conditions and undoubtedly will continue leading a lifestyle in accordance with their status.