(21) Choson Women Harshly Discriminated

By Yang Sung-jin

The Justice Ministry put forward a new draft of the law governing second marriages on May 22. The new law is expected to abolish the legal restriction barring women from getting married again before a six-month waiting period expires.

This legal clause, designed to identify who the real father is in case of pregnancy, has long been criticized as anachronistic by feminist activists.

Furthermore, controls on remarriage are viewed as examples of the long-standing practice of sex discrimination, the tainted legacy of the patriarchal tradition.

The root of this lop-sided social system can be traced back to the Choson Dynasty. Throughout this 500-year-long period, remarriage was `legally’ banned in the name of preserving the chastity of Choson women on a national scale. There was also a strict clause in the law blocking the offspring of violators of the law from applying for the state examination, an clear example of social discrimination.

In the Choson Dynasty, sex discrimination had a deep ideological background. In the eyes of the Choson people, the cosmos were made up of two opposing forces: yin and yang, heaven and earth, positive and negative.

Therefore, the theory went, men and women were also governed by this all-embracing natural law.
The problem was, the division of men and women did not mean they were on equal footing with one another. While men comfortably retained the positive, heaven-like status, women were relegated to a lower, subservient role. In short, men were the center of the universe with privileges galore; woman were simply minor and marginal.

This unfair notion was consistently inculcated in both boys and girls from early on. For instance, when a baby boy was born, he was placed on the table and given a piece of jade, symbolizing the government, for a plaything.

In contrast, a baby girl was often neglected and given only a spool to play with. As they grew up, boys aged six to nine were taught basic mathematics, which led to their more formal education beginning at the age of 10. As for girls, the attainment of the age of 10 signaled the beginning of a strict curfew and seclusion at home. They were only allowed to raise silkworms and spin cloth, the only job available to women in the Choson Dynasty.

Sex Discrimination Writ Large

In everyday life, the division reinforcing the male-oriented social structure was applied without exception. The house itself was divided into two parts called “an-chae” (inner building) and “sarang-chae” (men’s part of a house). There was a linking gate between the two different segments of the house, yet it was rarely used except on very special occasions.

Even the discussion of so-called “men’s business” by women was shunned; meanwhile, men were discouraged from discussing household management. Furthermore, women rarely went outside the house and, even when an outing was permitted, a woman was forced to hide her face and body with a shroud. Daytime outings were never allowed.

Interestingly, the strict rules, most of which would certainly have angered modern women if they were in place today, were applied to the yangban literati class, not to commoners. Therefore, women of the lower classes freely went out, albeit only to work in the rice paddies along with men.

Nonetheless, there was something all women had to learn regardless of class. Called “samchong-chido” (three rules for women), this moral standard literally defined the limits of the lives of women. The three rules amounted to obedience to one’s father before marriage, to one’s husband while married, and to one’s son after the death of the husband.

Despite these strictures, Choson society was not an absolute paradise for men. There were social mechanisms which ensured a certain amount of individual freedom and human dignity, though they would be viewed as feeble by today’s standards. For instance, the wife of a high-ranking official received an honorary title in accordance with their husband’s status.

Moreover, sex discrimination ironically guaranteed an exclusive position for women when it came to managing the home. No husband was permitted to meddle in the household affairs of his wife, whose job included the overall management of the family, the preparation for regular ancestral rites and the education of her children.

The role of a woman reached its peak when she became a mother. Especially after the death of a husband or father-in-law, an energetic mother took the lead in matters related to marriage and inheritance.

It was not that many years ago in Korea when inheritance laws were structured in favor of sons, particularly the eldest sons, while discriminating against daughters. In the early Choson Dynasty, however, women, including those who were married, had legal rights equal to those of their brothers as far as inheritances were concerned.

Women’s Right To Survive, Alone

Another interesting privilege enjoyed by women was the rule that dictated that the money and property brought by the bride upon her marriage was to be solely owned and managed by her. Even if a woman’s death preceded her husband’s, her wealth did not revert to him but was returned to her old home.

The unusual legal foundation of the Choson Dynasty, which championed the right of women to have their own financial independence, was largely due to the prohibition of remarriage. With remarriage legally banned, living alone without financial support was too much for the average Choson woman, which is why such a legal device was put in place for them.

Yet, as ancestral rites became more important, the role of eldest sons increased along with the proportion of the inheritance which was preserved for them. Choson women were slowly, yet steadily, excluded from the inheritance issue as the Choson period progressed into its later stages.

The most detested clause in the legal code of the Choson period was related to divorce. At that time, divorce often meant a husband kicking his wife out of the house on his whim. With two notable exceptions, there was no clause allowing for a woman to divorce of her own volition. The first exception applied in the event that a man ran away from his wife and did not return for long time, in which case the man’s wife could appeal to the government and obtain permission to divorce. The second exception applied if a man beat the wife, in which case the woman in question could divorce him, though only with his consent.

On the other hand, there were seven legal foundations called “chil-koh” (seven reasons to let go) which supported the right of a man to kick his wife out of the house. These “reasons” were disobedience to the husband’s parents, the inability to give birth to a son, licentiousness, an inordinate amount of jealousy (to a level jeopardizing the polygamy system), disease and stealing.
As expected, these seven reasons were easy to cite, hard to prove.

Therefore, there were several corresponding protective clauses called “sampul-koh” (three reasons not to let go). Saved from the prospect of banishment were those poor wives who had nowhere to go back to, those who had served the three-year mourning period after the death of the husband’s parents, and those who had married when the husband’s household was poor, with conditions improving since then.

Not too surprisingly, the number of actual divorces was few. Perhaps the Choson people understood that, in light of the prohibition of remarriage, a large population of divorcees would pose a serious social problem.

Yet, the CD-ROM Annals of the Choson Dynasty contains details of a typical legal case in which a battle was waged by a husband who had demanded a divorce by citing the holy “chil-koh.” The result was highly atypical. In 1425, an official named Lee Mi married the daughter of a retired soldier, Choi Chu. Unfortunately, the woman didn’t produce a son until she was 45. Angry at having been obliged to wait so long, Lee kicked his faithful wife out of the house and married another woman.

The banished woman’s father, Choi, filed suit with the Office of the Inspector-General, calling for justice. The government office ruled in favor of the woman, saying that “though the wife failed to give birth to a child, Lee should re-marry her because she faithfully served the three-year mourning period for her father-in-law.”

Yet, Lee did not give in so easily, citing his wife’s failure to fulfill her duty to deliver a son promptly and also mentioning the seven sins that he claimed his wife had committed.

Lee’s appeal was not accepted. Instead, he was charged with violating the government order against remarriage and punished with 90 blows from a cudgel.

The daughter of Choi Chu would certainly have taken satisfaction at the news of the abolition of the last remaining legal restriction on the remarriage, executed about 500 years later.