Historian Sheds Light on Female Pioneers
Ewha Graduates Break Stereotypical Image of Korean Women
By Do Je-hae
For Ewha Womans University President Lee Bae-yong, a life-long passion as a historian has been to research women's roles in shaping modern Korea, which ultimately led to the 2008 publication of her latest book "Women in Korean History."
The acclaimed book on Korea's historic female figures is available both in Korean and in English.
``I earnestly hope that the book will provide momentum to rediscover the wisdom and strength of Korean women and contribute to the history of women that will enrich the future of humankind,'' the 63-year-old scholar said.
The book is a comprehensive introduction of the lives of female pioneers from ancient to modern times.
It is also an elaboration of the various religious and cultural customs Korean women were traditionally entitled to.
``The 21st century is expected to be an era of unprecedented use of female human resources. There cannot be more valuable information than historical experiences in accessing the present and planning for the future,'' Lee said.
In this context, the author has intensively studied the history of Korean women with the aim of highlighting the dynamic life of those who defied numerous feudalistic barriers to assume pioneering roles in modernization as well as in the transmission and development of traditions.
``It is regretful that stories about women have not been accorded due importance in discussing historical and cultural monuments,'' Lee said. ``Looking through the eyes of a woman, however, numerous heart-moving episodes of ancient women can be rediscovered and new light shed on forgotten facts and the spirit of the times.''
Founded 124 years ago in 1886, Ewha was the first modern educational institution for Korean women and has since grown to become the world's largest women-only institute of higher learning.
As the head of this exceptional women's university, she has been particularly interested in spreading knowledge about the lives and the lessons of heroines from Korean history, like Queen Seondeok, the first queen of three in the Silla Kingdom, which lasted for 1,000 years after its foundation in 57 B.C..
``It is not a gap in ability that has put men in charge for much of our history,'' Lee said. ``It is who takes advantage of an opportunity.''
She said that Queen Seondeok took an opportunity, paving the way for Gen. Kim Yu-shin and Kim Chun-chu, who later became king, to conquer two rival kingdoms - Baekje and Goguryeo - and achieve the first unified nation on the Korean peninsula.
Queen Seondeok was recently rendered into a popular television drama, with her character reinterpreted in a way that better reflects the changing role of women in today's society. She was one of the first people who suggested making a television adaptation of the queen's life to MBC TV.
Additionally, the book introduces the women that are recorded as the ``first'' in Korean history such as Esther Park, the first female doctor; Choe Eun-hui, the first female journalist; Rah Hye-suk, the first female Western-style painter; Dr. Helen Kim, the first female to obtain a Ph.D. who also served as the seventh Ewha Womans University president and the first publisher of The Korea Times, the nation's oldest English daily, celebrating its 60th anniversary this year.
Breaking Stereotypes of Women's Roles
What sets this book apart from other publications on women is its comprehensiveness in covering all periods of Korean history.
``The history of Korean women differs greatly from conventional thought. Even those who believe they are knowledgeable about Korean history often have stereotypical views of Korean women from centuries ago -- the chaste and virtuous women of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910),'' Lee said. ``It means their historical knowledge is limited to the latter part of the Joseon Period, when Neo-Confucianism became firmly entrenched as the ruling ideology exerting far-reaching influence on the behavior of the whole society.''
In the book, Lee stresses that in much of ancient Korean society, women played vital roles in meeting the basic subsistence needs beyond childbirth and child-caring.
In marriage and economic activity, they were as independent and self-supportive as men.
Their rights to succeed the family lineage and inherit property were widely recognized. Thus the Silla Period (57 B.C.-935 A.D.) could have three reining queens over a millennium.
Records show that women during the Goryeo Period (918-1392) faced little discrimination in inheriting family assets and pedigrees as well as the rights to hold ancestral rites.
In the latter part of the Joseon Period, however, women's rights were reduced and immaculate virtues were demanded to confine them within the boundaries of the home as part of the policy to reinforce the Confucian mantle over society.
Nonetheless, Joseon women made more conspicuous achievements in cultural areas than their forbearers of any era.
Though they were denied any formal education; many left behind great literary and artistic works or excelled in academic realms, according to the author.
Ewha Women in Korean History
The book is also a reminder of the many female pioneers that had studied at Ewha. The school takes special pride in its role as the primary breeding ground for female leaders.
``Ewha graduates played leading roles in breaking the lofty barriers to enter various professions that had been previously regarded as men's realms in the 20th century,'' Lee said. ``Ewha has produced numerous pioneers -- the first woman doctor, lawyer, journalist and prime minister, and many more. Ewha has the mission to break more glass ceilings.''
Half of Korea's female ministers and a third of female lawmakers are Ewha graduates. They are also active in media, law, IT, education, industry and literary circles.
Founded by the Methodist missionary Mary F. Scranton in 1886, Ewha has some 23,000 students in 11 colleges and graduate schools. So far, the university has produced over 180,000 graduates and many of them play active roles both here and overseas.
Under the ``Global Ewha 2010'' project, the university has been expanding its international outreach programs in major cities around the world including Beijing, Tokyo, London and New York. The project aims to solidify its network with prestigious universities worldwide and send some 60 percent of its freshmen overseas within 2010.
It is now working with 754 universities in 57 countries. Along with this plan, it intends to increase the proportion of foreign professors and also English-only lectures by 30 percent.
Crisis of History Education
The historian has been deeply concerned with the lack of knowledge of Korean history and tradition often found in today's youth.
Lee has long held a resolute belief in the role of adequate history education as a critical factor in shaping the minds of future leaders.
She formerly served as the head of the colleges and universities' association and has often spoken strongly about reviving the importance of teaching national history to younger students.
``I will ask the government to pay more attention to the subject of Korean history,'' she said, talking about the Ministry of Education's plan to designate national history as an elective course in high schools.
Currently, history is classified as an elective subject for the standardized college scholastic ability test (CSAT). Because it is considered a taxing subject to study, fewer and fewer students opt to study it.
For the examination conducted in November 2009, only 18.2 percent of students chose history, the Korea Institute for Curriculum and Evaluation found. This is a great decrease compared to 46.9 percent in 2005.
Lee and many other historians are anxious that students will graduate from high school without a suitable understanding of history in the short term. A survey by the Ministry of Public Administration and Security last year found that 56.6 percent of people in their 20s didn't know what year the Korean War broke out.
In the long term, many historians warn that the country is at risk of losing a sense of unity that the subject plays a key role in promoting.
To advance history education, Lee makes it a priority to take her students to historical sites every semester, to places like the Joseon Dynasty royal shrine in Jongmyo, Gyeongbok Palace and Seoreung Royal Tomb.
On such occasions, she transforms herself into an informative teacher, sharing the tales behind some of the trademark buildings and structures of the historical sites with young inquisitive minds.
She was most recently in Changdeok Palace, one the five grand palaces in Seoul, from the Joseon Dynasty.
Before she assumed the top post at Ewha in 2006, she had served almost 20 years on the school's history faculty. The history tour program had initially been limited to history majors. But in recent years, the program has been opened to all Ewha students and even to those not registered at the school.
She has shown more attachment to the program since the 2008 Namdaemun fire that destroyed the nation's No.1 national treasure, believing such initiatives would help promote the appreciation of historical treasures.
She has also taken presidents of other universities and foreign envoys, including U.S. Ambassador Kathleen Stephens, on a tour of Changdeok Palace.
Foreign students at Ewha have also taken an active part in the program.