Our debt to this woman’s work

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Our debt to this woman’s work


Although the caste system used during the Joseon Dynasty was abolished through a series of reform measures taken by the government in 1894, it was only after the mid-1910s that the tradition of keeping servants at home ended. When the country was annexed by Japan, the houses that had consistently produced distinguished high-level officials generation after generation fell, too.

As a result, more families hired servants only when they were needed. Although some families could afford to employ male servants on a permanent basis, most wealthy households employed just one or two female workers.

Koreans called these women “chimmo.” But the Japanese called them “yobo” or “omani,” which sound like “darling” or “mother” in Korean, to show their contempt for the Korean people.

The living conditions of these women were poor. The daily wage of a male worker at that time was around 1 won. But most chimmo, who ate and slept at the master’s house, didn’t even earn that much. They were paid 5 won per month and worked from early morning till late in the evening without rest, making it difficult for them to see their families.

As Korean society developed, so, too, did the language, and there were attempts to use more respectful terms, even if that didn’t result in a change in the women’s status. The term “sikmo” was originally used as the title for the heads of school kitchens or dormitories, but it has been used in place of chimmo since the late 1920s. In the fifth republic under former President Chun Doo Hwan in the early 1980s, some of the job titles were changed to give the workers more equal standing and sikmo became “gasabojowon,” which was originally a housekeeper’s helper. And then in 1986, with the Seoul Asian Games bringing a new era of political correctness, the new title “doumi,” meaning “helper,” was coined and gasabojowon became “gasadoumi.”

In later years, the number of households that kept gasadoumi decreased, but only because people were interested in protecting their privacy. Still the status of these women remained the same.

Today, there are still women who work as gasadoumi to make extra money for their children’s education. It is time we recognize these women for their contributions to society and the sacrifices they make for their families.

*The writer is a professor at Seoul National University Hospital.

By Jeon Wu-yong
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