You are on page 1of 2

Sex Roles, Vol. 28, Nos.

1/2, 1993

Sexual Equality, Male Superiority, and Korean

Women in Politics: Changing Gender Relations in
a Patriarchal Democracy1
Chung-Hee Sarah Soh2

As a newly industrialized country Korean society may be characterized as a

patriarchal democracy, where the Western democratic principle of sexual
equality and the traditional Confucian ideology of male superiority contradict
each other and complicate the behavioral rules for gender relations. This paper
explores the processes of social change in gender relations by examining
organizational patterns of social actions of individuals in malefemale
interactions in South Korea, with a focus on the experiences of women in
politics. The analysis suggests the emerging pattern of gender relations in
Korean society is a compartmentalized gender schema that is fluid and
situationally defined by the individuals nunchi (tact or savoir-faire).

This paper is an essay toward understanding the processes of social

change in gender relations in South Korea by examining patterns of social
actions of individuals in male-female interactions, with a focus on the ex-
periences of women in politics. Despite the constitutional declaration of
equality,3 the cultural norms and values that guide gender relations in everyday
life in Korean society continue to be based on the Chinese cosmology
lrrhe research on which this paper is based was funded by grants from the National Science
Foundation and the East-West Center. I am grateful to the two institutions. Special thanks are also due
to Jerry Boucher, Jon McGee, and an anonymous reviewer for their helpful comments on early
versions of this paper.
2To whom correspondence should be addressed at Southwest Texas State University, Department of

Anthropology, 601 University Drive, San Marcos, TX 78666-2113.

3For example, Article 10 of the Korean constitution stipulates, All citizens shall be equal before the

law, and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic, civic or cultural life on account of sex,
religion or social status (Korea Overseas Information Service, 1980,
p. 10).

0360-0025/93/0100-0073S07.00/0 1993 Plenum Publishing Corporation

74 Soh

of the yin/yang complementarity1 (i.e., the harmonious combination of yin and
yangthe feminine passive and the masculine active principles, respectively)
fortified by the traditional Confucian ideology of male superiority. The concept
of sexual equality, in fact, is fundamentally alien to the Confucian worldview,
which regards society as an ordered inequality (Bodde, 1953, p. 48). The
Korean language with its several levels of honorifics not only reflects but also
helps to reinforce the inequalities in social status based on gender, age, and
social positions. Under the circumstances, one may refer to Korean society as a
patriarchal democracy.
Given the coexistence of these contradictory ideologies concerning gender
relations in Korean society, how do people deal with the tensions created by the
two opposing ideologies of sexual equality and of male superiority rooted in the
cosmology of harmonious yin/yang complementarity? A corollary of this
question is the issue of sociocultural change. How do men and women change
their behavioral patterns toward each other, and how do we study such change?
As Raymond Firth (1954) suggested, one way to study such change is to
distinguish social structure [which may be conceived as a set of ideal principles
and norms of behavior (cf. Leach, 1953)] from social organization and
investigate the processes of sociocultural change by focusing on social
organization of concrete actions and behaviors. Social organization in this paper
refers to the processes of ordering of action and of relations in reference to
given social ends, in terms of adjustments resulting from the exercise of choices
of members of the society (Firth, 1954, p. 10). As Firth (1954) pointed out, the
concepts of social structure and social organization are complementary, so that
organizational results may become part of the structural scheme, and structural
principles must be worked out in organizational arrangements.
Defining politics as the activities of elected and appointed officials (in
contrast to grassroots activities, which have received much attention in feminist
studies of recent years),2 I analyze the experiences of middle-class women within
Korean political institutions. Anne Stevens (1986) wrote that one may look at
womens place within political and governmental institutions from two
opposing perspectives: how little they have achieved or how much they have
achieved in a hostile world. My concern here is not so much about the
assessment of womens achievement in the political arena per se, as about the
insights into the processes of social change in the gender-role system in a
patriarchal democracy. Politics has been a male occupation even in matrilineal
societies (Schneider & Gough, 1961). Looked at

1For a discussion of yin/yang in the Chinese cosmology, see Bodde (1953).

2See, for example, Bookman and Morgen (1988) and Reynolds (1987).