Historical Female Figures to Remember

From the Independence Movement to International Women’s Day

Seo-yeong | 기사입력 2022/03/05 [17:57]

Historical Female Figures to Remember

From the Independence Movement to International Women’s Day

Seo-yeong | 입력 : 2022/03/05 [17:57]

With its awkward spelling error, If There Wer No Men in this World at first seems a somewhat careless title. The book’s title, however, has been selected with utmost care. It is lifted from feminist independence activist Ho Jong-suk’s article from the nationalist magazine Byeolgeongon, originally published February 1, 1929.

 

▲ A picture of a Japanese surveillance identity card of independence activist and socialist feminist activist Ho Jung-suk (1908-1991). Ho was 29 at the time of this picture. The book title ‘If Ther Were No Men in this World’ is lifted from one of Ho’s articles. Source: Encyclopedia of Korean Culture

 

In a time when one could likely count the number of women in Seoul with short hair on one hand, Ho Jung-suk, along with female activists Ju Sejuk and Go Myung-ja, defied the social norms of the time by cutting her hair short and playing in streams in central Seoul in broad daylight. Her words prove to be thought-provoking even when placed in a modern context:

 

‘If there wer no men in this world, and only women, all the lowly troubles from our daily lives would disappear. If you look at the social structures and economic systems of today, it may seem that women cannot survive without the governance and protection of men. Yet if somehow all the men in the world wer to disappear and the world became a place where only women exist, all social and economic structures would come to work in women’s favour. Each woman would gain the capacity to become entirely independent; her past pains from everyday trials would come to an end. Consequently, the resistance movements that women of the world today are conducting, clamouring and shouting, would naturally cease to exist.’

 

Would a world without men really result in the end of all socio-economic problems? It would seem difficult to argue today that a world with women alone would seriously lead to happiness for all and the end of all conflict and social disparity. Yet given that we remain in a society where patriarchy and androcentrism remain firmly enrooted in everyday life, Ho Jung-suk’s imaginary world does seem somewhat appealing.

 

If There Wer No Men in this World (Gombam, Newt Media 2019) introduces ten female independence activists previously overlooked within Korean history textbooks: Chung Chil-sung, Nam Ja-hyeon, Cho Shin-seong, Kang Ju-ryong, Kim Myung-si, Park Cha-jeong, Ho Jong-suk, Ju Sejuk, Lee Sun-gum, and Park Jin-heung. It also asks how many other heroic and now forgotten female independence fighters may have existed in Korea’s past.

 

▲ If There Wer No Men in this World (Gom-bam, Newt Media 2019)

 

As a woman living in a society where the lives of women and minorities, who may face three or more types of oppression, remain marginalised, I became curious about the lives of these historical female independence figures.

 

Nam Ja-hyeon

 

In the middle of If There Wer No Men in this World’s red cover, there is a woman wearing a white hanbok and pointing a gun into the distance. This woman is the independence activist Nam Ja-hyeon. Although her name is likely unfamiliar to most, she was portrayed by actress Jun Ji-hyun in the 2015 film Assassination (directed by Choi Dong-hoon) under the character name of Ahn Ok-yun.  Nam Ja-hyeon is the only female independence activist in Korean history who was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of the Order of National Foundation.

 

The author stated that the image of Nam Ja-hyeon on the front of the book is not intended to emphasise the brute force of the gun itself, but rather, the force felt in directing it at somebody. Unlike her character within Assassination, in reality Nam Ja-hyeon failed to complete her final assassination attempt at the age of 61. She was arrested and then died shortly after her release from prison. Yet like Ahn Ok-yun, Nam continued ‘fighting until the very end’ (to quote the film character). During her life she cut into the tips of her own fingers three times to send messages in blood. She also poured efforts into educating women, and came to be highly respected by the Korean independence fighters based in Manchuria.

 

Chung Chil-seong

 

The March 1919 independence movement further granted some mobility for Koreans over previously rigid career and social status hierarchies. One such individual was activist Chung Chil-seong. After becoming a gisaeng at the age of seven, Chung Chil-seong self-educated and went on to become involved in the March First Movement. She soon became an author for the first Korean women’s magazine, ‘Sinyeoja’, writing under the pen name ‘The Reflective Gisaeng’ (Sasang Gisaeng).

 

▲ Born into a poor household, Chung Chil-seong was a gisaeng who came to take a pioneering role in Korea’s first nationalist and socialist women’s group, the Korean Women’s Friendship Society. In 1927, she became a central member of its sister organisation, Kunuhui(Friends of the Rose of Sharon). Source: Encyclopedia of Korean Culture

 

In May 1924, Chung Chil-seong took a leading role in the formation of the Korean Women's Friendship Society, the first nationalist activist movement based on socialist understandings of feminist theories. She claimed that the uprooting of oppressive social customs and structures in Korea was imperative for women’s liberation. Whilst active in the Korean Women’s Friendship Society, Chung called for solidarity, saying, ‘Let’s join hands with those who share our understanding.’

 

By 1927, Chung had moved on to working with the affiliated nationalist and socialist women's organisation Kunuhui (Friends of the Rose of Sharon). Here, she called for both Koreans and in turn the whole human race to adopt a new revolutionary code: fighting to independently achieve their own ‘self-liberation’. Kunuhui fought against the Japanese and for women’s liberation until the organisation was forcibly disbanded by Japanese authorities in 1931.

 

Unlike Ho Jung-suk and the prominent feminist Na Hye-sok, Chung came from a lower socioeconomic background. She argued that the movement’s main objective should centre on ‘the women who have nothing’, and believed that the independence movement could only move forwards once it had solved the problem of Korean women being economically and sexually oppressed. She was an individual who identified the numerous problems of colonial capitalism as being firmly linked with patriarchy.

 

Chung Chil-sung remained continually involved in these social movements so that she would be able to reach out to women within the lower classes. She firmly believed that allying together with other social movements was essential in achieving the emancipation of women. These 20th century ideas seem to be applicable not only in the past colonial period, but further for both the present state of feminist movements today, and for their direction and development in the future.

 

Kang Ju-ryong

 

‘I refuse to come down until the foreman of the Pyeongwon Rubber Factory retracts his statement regarding the wage cuts…. And do not think that they will succeed in taking me down from here by force! I would rather fall and die than have anyone try and put a ladder against this roof.’ “An Interview with Kang Ju-ryong, the Woman Protester on Ulmil Pavilion’s Roof and Lady Independence Fighter”, Donggwang, Volume 31, July 1931

 

Kang Ju-ryong took up work at a Pyongyang rubber factory to provide for her family in a time of increasing global economic instability. Powerful capitalist leaders had begun to implement wide-scale wage cuts, in an attempt to avoid the perils of the economic recessions inflicted by the Great Depression, which started in 1929. The labour counter-movement that sprung up in response functioned as the starting point for Korean female workers to begin their own fight against their colonialists. Even before Japan’s systematic use of Korean forced labour, Korean women were continually being subjected to exploitation and violence in their workplaces.

 

▲ Kang Ju-ryong, a worker at the Pyongyang Pyeongwon Rubber Factory, sits on the rooftop of Ulmil Pavilion in 1931 to protest against poor working conditions and wage cuts. Source: Letters from Korean Women’s History

 

Kang Ju-ryong emerged as a central figure within these protest movements and linked hunger strikes. The women’s efforts, however, seemingly came to a halt in 1931. All 49 female workers in the factory, including Kang, were forcibly ejected out the front door of the factory by Japanese police. Thinking death would be preferable to being unable to feed her family, Kang headed to Ulmil Pavilion, built during the Goguryeo era and known as the highest point in Pyongyang. Although she arrived at the pavilion with the intention to end her life, Kang had a change of heart. She proceeded another thirty metres upwards to the very highest point of the roof. Here, Kang then conducted Korea’s first high-altitude sit-in protest for eight hours.

 

Even today, nearly 90 years after Kang’s original protest, there have been several individuals who have been inspired to try and replicate this type of high-altitude protest. In 2019, there was the conflict regarding the fired KTX train attendants, who were rehired after 13 years of campaigns and protests against unjust layoffs. (Translator's note: Female KTX train attendants used various forms of protests including head shaving, fasting, iron chaining, and sit-ins on tops of towers.) From September 2019 until January 2020, Korean highway toll collectors also engaged in a sit-in protest. Though working conditions generally appear to have improved since Kang’s time, the amount of time that workers remain on the rooftops, along with the overall strike duration period, has increased. Repeated incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault, primarily from workplace relations, have further led to unremitting struggles by female workers over the last few years - as exemplified by the #MeToo movement.

 

The harsh realities of the workplace that constricted Kang Ju-ryong in the past still hold women back today. It is for this reason above all that we must keep historical female figures such as Kang alive in our memories. These women remind us that we cannot simply look back at our history from an impartial position. We must come together and stand with the women who are raising their voices against inequalities in the workplace today.

 

Between the 101st anniversary of the March First Independence Movement and International Women’s Day, and within a society that still only knows of teenage patriotic martyr Yu Gwang-sun when we speak of ‘female independence activists’, I think back again to the woman in white on the book cover: Ho Jung-suk, who gave a lecture at the International Women's Day commemoration event on March 8, 95 years ago.

 

If There Wer No Men in this World introduces us to ten normal female figures from Korea’s past. The book takes an unbiased approach to the socialist independence movements, is careful to paint the women as not beings superhuman will but ordinary people who felt uncertainty, frustration, and worry, and above all, treats these women as autonomous and independent individuals. These women cannot and should not be recognised as independence activists only when they are mentioned in correspondence with men.

 

If There Wer No Men in this World lets us connect with and commemorate these women who have vanished into history - women who fought for equal rights not only for a few years, but for their entire lives.

 

Published: March 7, 2020

Translated by Chloe Sherliker

*Original article: http://ildaro.com/8666

 

◆ To see more English-language articles from Ilda, visit our English blog(https://ildaro.blogspot.com).

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