Sweeping cultural change rarely comes rapidly. Even in places where the constitution of the nation would guarantee equality of citizens, achieving true equality can be an agonizingly slow process. In the United States, for example, a fledgling women’s suffrage movement was present as early as the middle 1700s. The right to vote, however, would not be realized until 1920, over a hundred and fifty years later. Korea is a divided nation even more steeped in cultural tradition. Although there are some subtle differences, depending on region and class, Koreans still live in a regimented, patriarchal society.
Globalization can result in a more equal society. The world is more economically interrelated than ever. The power of tradition is strong, however. Economic change has moved much more rapidly than social change within Korea. Generally speaking, cultural change within large, modern cities is occurring at a modest pace. In most rural areas, there has been little, if any, change in recent centuries. Surprisingly, emigration to the United States has not rapidly increased social change among the Korean community, evidencing the strength of cultural ties.
Social change in Korea will continue to make uneven progress in the future because access to education varies widely among regions and classes. In the late 20th century there has been a dramatic shift in the center of women’s rights activity. Areas of the country that have greater interrelation have made greater strides toward the full liberation of women. Early in the 20th century, northern Korean cities saw the first cautious steps toward the empowerment of women. The communist regime has stalled cultural progress, not only for women but for everyone. Today, the center of cultural change is located in the South.
Regardless of the location, the nature of the Korean character indicates that cultural change, especially for women, will always move slower than economic change. The Patriarchal Society The centuries –old influence of Confucianism in Korea has resulted in a class-conscious, patriarchal society. The influence of Japanese invaders in the mid-20th century only served to reinforce that reality. The Confucianism practiced in Korea mandated strict roles for men and women. Women were relegated to house work and discouraged from seeking any marketable education.
Besides the influence of tradition, critics of increased liberty and opportunity have used a similar tactic to those who resisted this process in other countries. They claim that liberation from traditional roles for women will destroy the family structure. Similar arguments were made in relation to women’s suffrage in the United States. It is an argument that carries weight, particularly in a nation with such a deep paternalistic. background as Korea. Even in modern South Korea, the influence is still apparent. ” Women still believe that they should be good housewives and mothers.
There is some change but it is very, very slow” (Palley, 1990). Geographical and Class Differences The most obvious regional differences in culture come between the economically advanced state of South Korea and the economically stagnant, communist North Korea. The advanced industrial cities in the south, such as Seoul, have seen a liberalization of society, even if it lags behind the pace of economic change. The industrialization and modernization of South Korea has also resulted in the rise of a women’s movement, particularly in the larger cities.
Early in the 20th century, the education of women was much more prevalent in the northern area of Korea, particularly Pyongyang. There were two factors present there which correlated closely with the education of women. The elite classes were concentrated in northern areas at that time, and; there was also a strong presence of western missionaries there. Education for women was typically restricted to the upper classes. Consequently, professions in which women could participate were severely limited. In the 1930s, only three out of 100,000 college-age Korean women took part in higher education
Being born into a higher class, however, did not necessarily increase freedom. While women from the elite class have always been more likely to receive education, that education did not necessarily flow into a career. In fact, as Jihang Park reports, “…the higher the woman’s status, the more severe her seclusion” (1990). Jihang Park writes that, “In Korea, education was the primary focus of the women’s movement and remained so until 1945 (1990). A college for women has been in operation since the early 20th century, but the subjects available for study were limited in the early decades to preparing women for homemaking.
The first generation of college educated women in Korea were not effective advocates for increased cultural change. Because they were primarily from the elite classes, they were not especially career-driven. For many, education was mainly a means for attracting a better husband. Even where some progress toward equality is being made, the process is slow and incomplete. “Opportunities for professional mobility are very limited, and on average in 1988 women earned approximately 45% that of men” (Palley, 1990). A number of women’s rights organizations have emerged in the south, but their effect on issues such as these have been minimal.
Korean Immigrants A superficial cultural analysis of United States immigrants might conclude that exposure to economic and social liberty would substantially change the culture of immigrants and their descendants. Korean immigrants are somewhat unique, however, Whereas other immigrant groups are highly diverse in language and cultural practices, Korean immigrants tend to form a more homogenous group. Within that group, exposure to the outside culture remains somewhat limited and the cultural traditions brought from Korea remain strong.
Many Koreans work in businesses tailored mainly to serve their own community. Many Korean immigrants, male and female, “have little opportunity to learn American customs, including a more egalitarian gender role orientation” (Pyong Gap Min, 2001). Economic realities have dictated some changes. An increasing number of Korean women are finding it necessary to work outside the home. Many wives work along side their husbands. The participation of married Korean women in the American labor force has increased from about 17% in 1980 to 25% in 1990 (Min, 2001).
As it did with American women in the mid 20th century, working outside the home is empowering women to take a more active role in determining their own lives. Korean men grudgingly accept that women are entering the workforce, but still feel driven to maintain traditions at home. The result is a many marriages of Korean-Americans are experiencing strain. At the same time, cultural tradition stresses the importance of marriage. During the first half of the 20th century, more than 99% of Korean women were married by the age of forty-five (Jihang Park, 1990).
Analysis and Conclusion There are some forces within Korea which are advocating social changes on behalf of women. Eventually, a more equal Korea will emerge. The question is whether it will take tens of years or hundreds of years. Those forces within Korea must battle against hundreds of years of deeply ingrained cultural tradition. Societal change at a significant level is often initiated by the middle class. The gradually growing workforce of Korean women will need to develop effective leaders in future years to move the process toward equality forward (Palley, 1990).
In the past, the most influential forces for women’s rights have been external. Missionaries, in particular have been relatively effective in advocating education and basic human rights for women. It will take a larger force, though, to foster fundamental and lasting change for the lives of women in Korea. Fundamental social change is often economically-driven. Globalization is a seemingly irresistible economic force in the 21st century. Its focus on technology, education and interrelation with the world will force countries to either recognize the economic potential of women or risk being left behind.
The pace of cultural change varies, and will continue to vary, depending on a number of factors. Some types of change are more easily accepted than others. For example, Korean-American men have accepted the necessity of their wives working but many do not accept that this can mean an alteration of marriage roles. Korean women in North Korea, South Korea and America are working in greater numbers than ever before. In a few cases, this has given them greater access to education and the political system. In most cases, however, it has not. Sources Min, Pyong Gap. (2001).
“Changes in Korean Immigrants’ Gender Role and Social Status, and Their Marital Conflicts. ” Sociological Forum. Vol. 16, No. 2 (Jun. ), pp. 301-320. Min, Pyong Gap. (2003). “Korean “Comfort Women”: The Intersection of Colonial Power, Gender and Class. ” Gender and Society. Vol. 17, No. 6 (Dec. ), pp. 938-957. Palley, Marian Lief. (1990). “Women’s Status in South Korea: Tradition and Change. ” Asian Survey. Vol. 30, No. 12 (Dec. ), pp. 1136-1153. Park, Jihang. (1990). “Trailblazers in a Traditional World: Korea’s First Women College Graduates, 1910-45. ” Social Science History. Vol. 14, No. 4 (Winter), pp. 533-558.
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