Rebecca Ruhlen presents on "Middle-Classness and Gender in Invocations of Public and Private: 1990s South Korean Feminist Activism"
Summary by Jae Lee
Posted: November 3, 2008
Ruhlen finds that South Korean women have difficulty establishing their identities because of the lack of proper words to represent their social status. In Korean there are several terms to describe women. The term ajumma (아줌마) is used to indicate a married woman. On the contrary, agatssi (아가씨) to a young, unmarried woman. However, even though they are married, many Korean feminist activists refuse to be referred to as ajumma. Regarding the phenomenon Ruhlen explains that South Korean feminists reject the term ajumma because not only it reflects women's domestic identity but also symbolizes lower social class. In other words, according to her argument, ajumma implies the image of a unsophisticated, poor woman. In this context ajumma is not suitable for those South Korean feminists who are highly educated and economically well-off in relative sense. For that reason, many female university students involved in feminist activism in South Korea refer to their senior male colleagues as hyung (the term for junior males to call their senior males), not as oppa (the term for junior females to call their senior males). On this, Ruhlen views the South Korean feminists' mimicry of masculine identity as resistance to the male-centered ideology of South Korean society.
Ruhlen's research is interesting because she interprets the 1990s South Korean women's activism in relation to not only gender but also social class. Noting the fact that South Korean economy was threatened by the Pan-Asian economic crisis, the so-called IMF Crisis, her research of interlinking South Korean women's gender struggle with their anxiety to secure their middle-class status is remarkable because her research deeply considers the socio-political context of the 1990s South Korea. However, the example of Korean female university students' use of the term hyung, instead of oppa, to call their male senior colleagues does not fit into the 1990s South Korean context. The trend of female students' calling their male senior colleagues hyung on college campus was popular between the early 1980 and the late 1980. When I was in a Korean university from 1997 to 1998, I had never seen a female student calling their male seniors hyung. Perhaps the South Korean feminists whom Ruhlen interviewed with recollected their college life back in the 1980s. Nevertheless, besides the minor discrepancy, Ruhlen's work is commendable because her research contributed to breaking the majority of Americans' stereotypes and prejudices against East Asian societies, particularly South Korea.