Women’s movements aim to help realize true gender equality and are seen all over the world these days. To overcome the contradictory situation that forced the victims of sexual harassment and sexual assault to remain silent, a campaign or movement called #MeToo began recently in the United States. It encourages people to reveal accusations of sexual violence.
A famous filmmaker, Harvey Weinstein, was exiled at the end of a recent campaign begun by actresses who had been sexually assaulted by him. However, despite these illustrations of abuse against women and their subsequent winning attempt to expose this abuse, women’s social status in general is not yet fully strengthened.
In January, Carry Gracie, former editor of BBC’s China branch, resigned after discovering that men in her company receive at least 50 percent more in salary than women in the same position. Then, how have women’s positions, rights and roles changed in Korea? The Argus researched and discovered the “new women” who continue to shout for women’s emancipation and freedom, based on a movement that began more than 100 years ago.
The word “New women” was first used in England. The term indicated females who called for women’s suffrage or who wore pants as New women. This term entered Korea through Japan and became a buzz word in the 1920s. The concept of New women differs from country to country. However, it basically includes the meaning of “women who try to change the political and social inequality women face.”
The reporter arrived at the ticket office located next to the main gate of Deoksugung Palace. While walking along the road, there come two stone buildings in sight with different atmosphere from the old traditional Korean buildings.
Under the guidance of the staff, people went upstairs. On every side of the staircase, numbers were written upside down from 2017, so it felt like traveling back in time. When people met the number 1920, the ex h ibit ion room appeared in front of them.
This room introduces the emergence of New women and the contradictory gaze of patriarchal society toward them. The concept of the New women is examined through the images mainly reproduced by male artists or mass media.
As the publication of newspapers and magazines became active in the 1920s and 1930s, and visual mass culture such as movie performances and fairs were formed. Women were used to attract the desire for fascinating western culture and commodities.
With the introduction of this new concept, some women did activities that were not common for women at that time, such as reading and sports, in order to be reborn as “New women.” External factors such as westernized make-up and clothing were also indicators of New women.
“I think it is really necessary for women to get out of housework and become educated like the New women. It hurts to think that ordinary females at that time would not have enjoyed doing so,” said Jeong Da-bin, a 33-year-old woman.
The era in which the New women lived was an era marked by education, enlightenment, love and marriage, urbanization and westernization, consumption and popular culture. Under the colonial system, New women lived among the gap between modernity and pre-modernity.
New woman Na Hye-seok’s poem “Nora” expressed the sorrow of old females who could not live for themselves as a result of being bound by family. “I was a doll. As a father’s daughter doll. As a husband’s wife doll. (omitted) I am a human. Before becoming a husband’s wife. Before becoming a mother of children. Foremost, I am a human.”
“When I read Nora, I felt like I was hit hard in the head by something. It reminded me of my mother. Until today, I saw my mom as a woman who fed me, not as the same woman like me,” said a 20-year-old female visitor.
Visitors have explored the concept and image of New women based on social norms in the first period. This part illuminates the work of the New women who chose arts as a means of expressing themselves.
Being an artist as a woman is both an awareness of her own abilities and the greatest social activity acceptable to women.
Education for women in the modern era emphasized their role as a decent citizen. Women were taught to be a “good wife” along with virtues like obedience, diligence and sincerity. This situation made it harder for them to find their real self. Fortunately, the female artists showed the ability and potential of women by choosing the arts as a means of expressing themselves.
On the wall, there were artworks from various artists such as Lee Gap-hyang, Na Sang-yun and Lee Gap-gyeong. Among them, the Anatomical Wall Chart by Park Re-hyun attracted the most visitors. It is a picture of a human skeleton, and it feels quite different from the common mulberry coloring.
Park entered the Tokyo Women’s Art School and started living as a painter. Unlike other Asian painters, she showed bold attempts to transcend genre and medium, such as plate painting and lithography. She also held art exhibitions with her husband 12 times.
A picture painted by Jeong Chan-young of a peacock, proud of his charm, was both noticeable and memorable. However, what was more impressive than the peacock itself was the description of the picture. After giving birth to two daughters, she finally had a son and expressed that pleasure with a peacock spreading its wings.
It is sad that the situation of those times made women happy just because they bore a boy. At the same time, it is incredible that she sublimated the ironic joy through artwork.
“I know what to do as a daughter or as a female student, but I do not know how to live as a person,” said one college student.
“I admire these women who left these paintings at a time when most women did not do any social activities are admirable. I looked back at myself as a male and asked myself whether there were unconscious stereotypes about the fixed activity area of women,” observed a man in his twenties.
After examining the overall concept of new women and their activities, the third part of the exhibit goes into the personal lives of five representative Korean new women: Na Hye-seok, Kim Myeong-soon, Ju Se-juk, Choi Seung-hee, Lee Nan-young. They overcame the sexist limitations and challenges of their times. The strides these women made are true mirrors reflecting the image of Korean women in the modern era.
Na Hye-seok was Korea’s first female artist to hold a solo exhibition. She also made a name for herself as women’s liberation activist and novelist whose thought-provoking writing challenged the nation’s patriarchal structure and taboos.
In the 1920s, women were able to have the meaning only of “someone’s what” within the kinship system, such as someone’s wife and mother. However, Na married and set up this condition for her new partner: “Do not interfere with my drawing. I will live separately from my mother-in-law and your former wife’s daughter.”
After experiencing childbirth and child rearing, she said, “It is too painful to have a baby and to breastfeed. Society does not understand the pain of women but merely tells them to put up with it.”
A young, middle-aged, upon reading these comments, stated, “Even though I’m a woman, I thought that the pain caused by childbirth or childcare was something women should endure. But now I realize that women should be able to claim legitimate rights.”
Women’s movements share similar values to the environment and peace. In everyday life, where the majority is comfortable and familiar, they try to find and solve problems of invisible discrimination, repression and violence. The voice supporting them is also getting louder. Thanks to them, our society has moved away from the myth that “Women are just for serving meals and nurturing kids.”
There is no need to be afraid of the disadvantages that might return. People should not be silent when it comes to their rights. It is time for people to think seriously about the role they play as a woman or a man and strive for an equal society.
By Jeon Nu-ri
Associate Editor of Culture Section