13th Gwangju Biennale — Minds Rising Spirits Tuning

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A History of Women in Gwangju: Only Records Can Prove Our Lives

By Ko Bo-Hye

The study of local women’s history is the task of restoring the lives of women, otherwise buried in the patriarchal discourse perpetuated by the central government of South Korea. This study aims to represent their subjectivity and agency as members of local communities, through telling their stories and reexamining the meaning of localism from a feminist perspective. 

The development of localized women’s histories correlates with broader changes in Korean society. The rise of the pro-democracy movement across the country in the 1980s increased interest in individual communities. Following the adoption of the Local Autonomy Act in 1995, regions and cities came to be understood as an important unit for people’s lives, and pride in local identity and the uniqueness of a region became a vital part of local histories.

The study of women’s history has been carried out by each local government across South Korea, in coordination with individual researchers. But although women have played a key role in shaping and preserving Korean history and culture, the records handed down have mainly been co-opted by men to reaffirm and reproduce the patriarchal order. Most historical materials related to women have been ignored, and many heritage sites related to historic female figures have been damaged, or their whereabouts are unknown. It was thus necessary to find alternative ways of studying history through a new approach to historic records, by including non-traditional resources—paintings, letters, journals, autobiographies, photographs, newspaper articles, and oral histories—along with the usual history books.

In 2019, the Gwangju Foundation for Women and Family conducted a study of women’s history in Gwangju to examine the lives of women in the pre-modern period, from ancient times through to the Joseon dynasty. Through this work, the foundation aims to establish an archive of women’s history in Gwangju, to fill the gaps in this history from a feminist perspective, and commemorate significant female figures.

Shin Yun-bok, "Woman With A Cap" from "Yeosokdo" Album, silk fabrics, 29.7 x 24.5 cm, Joseon dynasty (1392–1897), Korea ⓒ National Museum of Korea

Gwangju women in the Goryeo dynasty (918–1392): feminism and more equal relationships between husbands and wives

Gwangju was called Muju or Gwangju at the end of the Silla dynasty. The area was officially named Gwangju in 940 (the twenty-third year of King Taejo’s reign), but its status was lower than that of neighboring places Naju or Seungju. Its name changed to Mujinbu in 1362 (the eleventh year of King Gongmin’s reign) and Gwangjumok in 1373 (the twenty-second year of King Gongmin’s reign), which also changed the political and administrative status of Gwangju during the dynasty. Working with the few surviving records on Gwangju women during the Goryeo dynasty, researchers attempted to restore their stories from tombstones. Most of the records on the tombstones are detailed and vividly written and so serve as reliable biographical data that shed light on individual lives as well as wider group and societal dynamics. Although there are limitations to this research, in the sense that most of the women whose records can be found from tombstones were from noble families and related to the Gwangsan Kim clan, it still serves to supplement existing historical narratives that typically focus exclusively on men and the central government. In addition to the women recorded on the tombstones, the “Yeolnyeojeon” (“The Tales of Virtuous Women”) in the Goryeosa (History of Goryeo) also features references to Kang Ho-moon’s wife, Moon, and Kim Eon-kyung’s wife, Kim, who famously resisted and kept chastity when the Japanese invaded Gwangju in the fourteenth century. The term yeolnyeo began to be used with the acceptance of neo-Confucianism at the end of the Goryeo dynasty, and is also related to the social atmosphere of the early Joseon dynasty when the Goryeosa was compiled.

Matrilocal residence was a marital custom during the Goryeo dynasty. During this time, when a family was a small group consisting of a married couple with unmarried children, a husband often moved to his wife’s house and lived with his parents-in-law. There were many cases in which sons-in-law supported their wives’ parents while living with them. There were also cases where they moved out from their wives’ parents home, but still lived close to them and other relatives. These forms of residence sit in relation to other social and familial norms of the Goryeo dynasty, such as the close connections of a couple to the husband’s and the wife’s families, and the equal split of inheritance regardless of gender.

Although there are views that both monogamy and polygamous marriage existed in the Goryeo dynasty, monogamy is considered to have been more common. There were cases of the king or members of the ruling class having several wives, but this was not technically legal. It became more popular to have multiple wives among the ruling class during the late Goryeo dynasty, which would become a controversial social issue. The influence of the Yuan dynasty (the ruling dynasty of China in the thirteenth to fourteenth century) affected many cultural aspects of Goryeo, including marital customs. For example, there was an attempt to enact a law to make concubinage legal during the reign of King Chungryeol. One story in the Goryeosa tells of Park You, a government official who wished to discuss the enactment of the concubinage law in the late Goryeo dynasty. During the lotus lantern festival, he was part of the horse guard for the King’s ceremonial march:

An old woman pointed a finger at him saying: ‘That’s the rotten old man who appealed to have multiple wives.’ People started talking about him and lots of fingers pointed at him on the street. Some of the senior government officials feared their wives at the time; they did not want to proceed with the discussion about the enactment of concubinage law, so it didn’t happen.

One can imagine the active and independent attitude of these women in the Goryeo dynasty, who criticized Park You and suspended the enactment of concubinage law through their husbands. The old woman in the story was a feminist who acted unhesitatingly for the promotion of women’s rights; those who joined in, pointing their fingers, can also be regarded as feminist activists.

During the Goryeo dynasty, women actively discussed and expressed their opinions, with relatively equal status and rights as their husbands. Other stories tell of Ko of Okgu-gun, who rejected bribes on behalf of her husband, a high-ranking official, without the slightest hesitation; and of the wives of Hong Suro and Choi Woon-hae, the latter of whom even had physical fights with her husband. In addition, Goryeo women’s divorce and remarriage was commonly accepted, a marked contrast to the customs of the later Joseon dynasty. These examples show the relatively equal status of husbands and wives in this society.

Yeom Kyung-ae's epitaph, stone, 33 x 70 x 3.4 cm, Goryeo dynasty (918–1392), Korea ⓒ National Museum of Korea

Gwangju women in the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1897): lives in the era of discrimination against women

The philosophy of Songlihak, the School of the Principle of Human Nature, was accepted by Joseon society and subsequently had a wide-reaching impact on its culture, particularly in determining women’s daily lives and social status. Songlihak is a school of Neo-Confucianism founded by Zhu Xi, a scholar of China’s Song dynasty. In Neo-Confucianism women are perceived as those who should yield and obey, to bring about societal order and harmony. Discrimination against women in Korea thus intensified during the Joseon dynasty. The Confucianist view of women is exemplified by a few common concepts of the period: Yin-Yang theory, the phrases “distinctions between sexes” and “the calamity of women,” the concept of gender in relation to public/private or outside/inside spaces, and “the calamity of women.”

During the Joseon dynasty, the Gwangju area did not play an important political or administrative role. Even within the South Jeolla Province, it was not as prominent as the city of Naju. It was thus rare for someone from Gwangju to take a leading position in central politics or for a noble family to have the power to influence the whole country. As a result, there are limited records and it is even more difficult to trace women’s histories from this time. However, as in other regions, the Gwangju local government created “village codes” and distributed them to local residents, punishing those who disturbed the Confucian social order. Educational materials for women were distributed within the region, and each family kept Sohak, a book of the fundamentals of knowledge, for women.

Some geography books and community records (eupji) also point to the presence of women in Gwangju who fitted the national ideals for femininity during the Joseon dynasty. These included hyonyeo (devoted daughter), hyobu (devoted wife), and yeolnyeo (faithful wife). Among the hyonyeo, hyobu, and yeolnyeo who appeared in the 1879 edition of the Gwangju Eupji, the proportion of yeolnyeo was the highest. Yeolnyeo women were tasked with carrying out Confucian funeral processes and protecting Confucian symbols. Yeolnyeo women were also those who committed suicide out of loyalty to their country, husbands, or because of shame; women who died after their husbands, and women who otherwise damaged their bodies for the benefit of their parents-in-law or husbands. In addition to these records, the history of bongho also shows the presence of women in this society. Bongho was a recognition by the king, akin to a formal title, within which ten different classes. The essential criterion for receiving these classes was marriage: a woman was able to receive bongho only through her husband, son, or grandson; if she was a concubine or remarried, she could not receive the title.

Other records from the time indicate the autonomy of women in Joseon society, in spite of the oppressive social atmosphere. In the Gwangju area, many women who married during the late Joseon period maintained close relations with their own relatives. For example, a memorial service script written by Tae-dong Kee in 1746 (the twenty-second year of King Yeongjo’s reign) in mourning for his sister, who died at the age of thirty-two, reveals the close affection between brother and sister. In addition, a letter of inheritance records how Lee Wonbu’s wife, Park, divided property between her children, without distinguishing between sons and daughters. At the time, it was typical for eldest sons to receive a higher share and for a daughter’s share to be decreased.

Above all, the recorded activities of Gwangju women reveal the active role they played in housekeeping and educating their children. There were women who petitioned the king for financial support in managing household affairs, and women who educated their children well, even after their husbands passed away.

"List Of Devoted Daughters And Virtuous Women in Honam", 22.2 x 32.2 cm, 1937 ⓒ Chonnam National University Library

Gwangju women in modern times: struggles for independence, democracy, and freedom

Gwangju became the seat of South Jeolla provincial government, in place of Naju, in 1896. In the 1910s it was still a quiet rural town, spread with rice paddies and dense with beautiful trees, with a population just over 10,000. At that time, Gwangju was politically and economically inferior to Jeonju, Naju, and Mokpo, although it gradually grew into a major city through a dynamic process of modernization. At the time of writing (December 2019), the city has a population of over 1.45 million. In comparison to contemporary Gwangju, images of the city one hundred years ago seem strange.

Due to a land survey project conducted shortly after Japanese colonial rule began in the 1910s, a few Japanese and Korean people who purchased large amounts of property became very wealthy. Most of the farmers in Gwangju and the South Jeolla remained tenant farmers. There was also a significant movement of people from other parts of South Jeolla into Gwangju at this time, particularly those looking for jobs and education. In the 1960s, after the Korean War, South Korea launched a full-scale industrialization effort. In the 1970s, the country saw rapid economic growth as the government backed heavy industry, but Honam (another name for the Jeolla Province) remained under-developed. Famous for its agriculture, Jeollanam-do (South Jeolla Province) sustained the growth of the national economy by providing cheap agricultural products for the manufacturing and export industries. During this industrialization, many more people migrated to Seoul, Gyeonggi, and Gwangju in order to find jobs, and Gwangju saw historic population growth in the 1960s. Later, the city absorbed Songjeong and Gwangsan-gun to become the Gwangju Direct-controlled municipality in the 1980s. In the 1990s, with the revival of the local autonomy system, it became Gwangju Metropolitan City with five municipal areas.

In the history of modern South Korea, Gwangju women’s main roles and activities can be understood in many ways. During the March 1st Independence Movement in 1919, female students and teachers led by Park Ae-soon, a teacher at Speer Girls’ High School in Gwangju, participated in the march by making and distributing the Declaration of Independence and the South Korean national flag. They were later arrested and sentenced to time in prison. In 1929, the sexual harassment of a student of Gwangju Girls’ High School by Japanese middle school students sparked the Gwangju Student Independence Movement. This would become a major anti-Japan nationalist movement, the biggest since the March 1st Independence Movement. This was possible because of the accumulated experiences of student protests and the existence of secret student organizations established in 1926, when students of Gwangju Girls’ High School organized a secret student association called Sonyeohoe, raising awareness of anti-colonialism through reading clubs and social science research, which motivated girls to actively participate in the independence movement. Even after the Gwangju Student Independence Movement, dozens of Gwangju Girls’ High School students were expelled after they submitted blank exam papers in protest against student arrests, an action that would later become known as the Blank Paper Alliance.

In the 1970s, a female working class emerged in large-scale businesses in the manufacturing sector, such as Ilshin-bangjik and Jeonnam-bangjik (textiles), Honam-jeonki (electricity), Jeonnam-jesa (filature), and Namhae-eomang (fishing nets). These women workers formed a democratic union through small study groups. As part of the labor movement in the late 1970s, college students took the lead in forming night classes for factory laborers. There were also independent activities among the feminist movement in Gwangju, such as the socialist activist group Songbaekhoe, many of whom participated in the pro-democracy movement in May 1980. During the May 18th Democratic Uprising, Gwangju women actively participated in the movement’s leadership, street protests, PR activities, and as secret agents. They also performed supporting roles, such as delivering rice balls to protesters or cooking rice for citizens.

The shift toward gender equality and our roles going forward

Since Korea was liberated from Japan in 1945, the introduction of Western laws and systems and the dissemination of the concepts of freedom and equality have weakened the patriarchal system that was central to Confucian ideology. The Constitution stipulated gender equality. The adultery law, which used to be unfavorable to women, was revised and abolished. There have been many changes in the law to redress women’s rights, such as removing sexist elements concerning the inheritance of family members in civil law, and the abolition of the hoju system, which historically dictated the head of the household as male. The slow process of promoting women’s rights began with the emergence of women’s organizations. These organizations were interested in women’s issues, in fighting against authoritarian regimes alongside the democratization movement, and in overhauling the legal system to deal with women’s issues at a national level.

More recently, the paradigm of women’s policies is shifting toward gender equality. The title of the Women’s Development Act was revised to the Framework Act on Gender Equality. Under the keynote that gender equality is key for a sustainable future, the government is expanding projects and support for the expansion of gender mainstreaming and discussions around work-life balance, aiming to realize gender equality in all areas of politics, economy, society, and culture.

A few years ago, prosecutor Seo Ji-hyeon’s courageous decision to speak out about sexual abuse among lawyers in the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office sparked the beginning of the #MeToo movement in South Korean society. Sexual harassment issues are still rampant in various sectors, including sport, culture, and the arts, as well as in families, schools, and workplaces. These issues have been emphasized via women’s voices, while digital sexual violence and hidden camera crime have also come under the spotlight. Unfortunately, these discussions are usually met with defensive accusations against women for the damage caused by reporting sexual violence, rather than with conversations around how to respond to these problems on a structural level. It is difficult for things to improve without a change in consciousness across members of society. However, South Korean society is going through a positive change in people’s awareness thanks to increasing numbers of charges, prosecutions, criminal investigations, and trials concerning gendered violence and harassment.

On a final, personal note, while working for policy research institutions like Gwangju Foundation for Women and Family, I have struggled with the ways in which South Korean society encounters the fundamental problems it has, often intentionally, overlooked. Policy research institutes aim to advance discussions to solve societal problems, while remaining impartial, eventually contributing to policy making. To this end, they should provide data and design political frameworks. The research process should be transparent and the results accessible to the public. Researchers must therefore think about their objectives from the perspective of law and policy, with a view of the entire context, as well as with attention to people’s lives. Ideally, they should have a positive, hopeful outlook to make the world better. 

The original plan of the Gwangju Foundation for Women and Family was to shed light on the trajectory of the lives of Gwangju women from ancient times through to the Joseon dynasty. In the end, there were not enough historical materials to explain the full history of women in Gwangju, in order to reveal the particularities of women’s lives during the pre-modern period. Nevertheless, I realized that the best thing I could do, for now and for the future, was to record what I could about women in this period, for only what has been recorded becomes history. As someone born and raised in Gwangju, I have an attachment to the places in which I and my community are rooted. I continue to be interested in the traces of this city and its unknown or untold stories—the history, culture, and atmosphere of Gwangju, and the lives of its women.

*This essay is an edited version of  “Gwangju Women’s History I: Pre-modern period,” a 2019 report by the Gwangju Foundation for Women and Family.


Dr. Ko Bo-Hye is Senior Researcher at Gwangju Foundation for Women and Family. She was Director at Gwangju Center of Gender Impact Assessment (2017), Advisory Committee at Korean Institute for Gender Equality Promotion and Education (2012), and Guest Researcher at Korean Women’s Development Institute (2009-2011), and was lecturing at Chonnam National University, Gwangju University, and Mokpo National University (2008-2011). She wrote numerous publications and study reports such as Gwangju Women’s History I (Gwangju Foundation for Women and Family, 2019), and Constitutional Protection of Family and Social Security Systems (“Gender and Law”, Korean Association of Gender and Law, 2015). Dr. Ko holds a Ph. D. in law (constitutional law) at Chonnam National University.