[VIEWPOINT]New directions for womenAlmost 20 years ago, on Feb. 18, 1987, a general meeting to launch the United Women’s Associations of Korea was held at the home of the Seoul Women’s Hotline in Hapjeongdong, Seoul.
Twenty-one womens’ associations had joined in nationwide campaigns against the payment of the KBS television tax because of the network’s support for the dictatorial regime and the use of sexual torture by interrogators employed by the police.
The inauguration ceremony was a humble one for the launch of a women’s association that has now represented the progressive women’s movement for the past 20 years, but almost all the prominent figures in the women’s movement were gathered there. Starting with Lee Oo-chung, the first-term president of the women’s United Progressives, women’s liberation leaders including Park Young-sook, Han Myeong-sook, Lee Mi-kyung, Kim Hee-sun, Chi Eun-hee and Lee Kyung-sook all participated in the inaugural meeting.
The United Women’s Associat-ions brought a breath of fresh air to our civic groups.
The Korean women’s movement had a shameful history of failing to maintain its independence and for being politically manipulated both when the country was under Japanese rule and right after liberation. A pro-government tendency and an inclination to be patronized by the government were the failings the United Women’s Associations sought to end. It proclaimed that its duty and role as a civic group lay in liquidating the remnants of its pro-government tendency and causing the organization to be reborn as a group that would criticize and check the power of the government. In this way, the United Women’s Association sought to differentiate itself from other women’s organizations.
The Association went on to ensure enactment of a law against sexual violence, enactment of a special law against violence at home, an end to sexual harassment at work, and it induced the Constitutional Court to pass a law that makes marriage between a man and a woman with the same family name unconstitutional. It also campaigned successfully for the introduction of a women’s quota system for employment and politics. With each achievement it seemed like the United Women’s Associations was writing a new history of Korea’s women’s movement. The activists belonging to the United Women’s Associations made strawberry jam to sell for funds and they held telephone campaigns to sell sponsorship tickets.
Twenty years from its inception, the United Women’s Associations recently held a symposium in an effort to find a new vision and mode of campaigning.
However, there was only a brief complimentary glance at history, followed by a flood of criticisms. Among them, the charge that the organization has become a part of the establishment was the most painful. One male panelist pointed out that, “The posts of the heads of women’s organizations have become a shortcut to the job of cabinet minister and lawmaker. And the atmosphere in women’s organizations is so oppressive that anyone who steps away from the official line is stigmatized. It’s clear the United Women’s Associations has become too power-oriented.” In fact, the activists of women’s liberation did not lust after public office in the beginning. One representative of a women’s organization protested that the organization may have become too power hungry because it tried to expand its political influence in the process of campaigning for laws and institutions that favor women. People criticize the organization referring to the fact that from the first head to the immediate predecessor of the incumbent head, all have transformed themselves into cabinet ministers, lawmakers and one even became a prime minister.
Therefore, it is unavoidable that people will claim that the post of the women’s movement head has become a step that inevitably leads to a high-ranking public post. The criticism is so strong that it may have become a burden to the next generation of activists in the women’s movement and the women’s movement itself. Anyway, criticism of impure elements in the women’s movement is growing.
The oppressive and rigid atmosphere of the organization is also a problem. Even a male professor who used to help the women’s movement recently said, “I watch my tongue when I visit the women’s organizations.” If one makes any kind of joke about a sensitive subject, one will be stigmatized as a “male chauvinist” and lose all respect. I can understand why women’s liberation activists display a stubborn attitude towards issues like the sex trade and sexual violence, but it will be difficult for them to get a consensus of support from the people on any issue if they don’t show a more open attitude toward a dialogue that involves the whole nation. If they succeed in enacting a law through lobbying at the National Assembly or by forcing the government to implement policies, they can make it look like that the women’s movement has achieved a lot. But what they have achieved in reality is a different story. This is the reason why some allege that the women’s movement has become arrogant.
Nowadays, we often hear that the women’s movement is in a crisis. The more I hear such claims, the more I miss Lee Hyo-chae, a former professor of Ewha Woman’s University and the godmother of the Korean women’s movement who provided the ideological foundation of the movement. Although she led the women’s movement in its early stages and educated a lot of students and trained many women’s movement activists, she refused to even assume a post as a humble committee member. After retiring from the university at the age of 82, she went to Jinhae where she devotes herself to a movement that is building a children’s library there. She used to emphasize that social activism should be based on sacrifice and perseverance and that working for change only has a good outcome when people work in such a spirit.
This is the kind of advice the women’s movement should listen to in its time of crisis.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Moon Kyung-ran