Gender Roles in Early Korean Society

Before the arrival of Confucian philosophy, Korean women held greater status in their societies. The Three Kingdoms period in particular saw powerful female rulers. Queen Seondeok, or Sondok, was the first independent queen of Korea. She reigned from 632 to 647 CE and ushered in a new era of prosperity for her people.[1] Silla women were legally the equals of men in many ways. They could inherit property and were respected members of their communities, able to socialize as they pleased.[2]

The Goryeo dynasty continued this tradition. Children received wealth from their parents equally, and it was not uncommon for women to inherit their own homes. In many cases, grooms stayed with the bride's family after their marriage. During this time, a child's status was determined by the family of both parents.[3]


Roles of Men and Women in the Joseon Dynasty

Joseon society embraced Confucian philosophy. Long practiced in China, it encouraged strict divisions between the sexes. Paternal ancestry determined a person's status at birth, making rigid sexual control a social necessity. As a consequence, women were taught to be virtuous and obedient and to prize male heirs above all else.

Men served in the public sphere as officials, farmers, craftsmen, and merchants. Women, on the other hand, were confined to specific areas of the home. Male members of the household occupied the outer portions of the hanok. Wives and daughters remained in the inner rooms and courtyards. Among the peasants, small homes were simply split into two rooms. Women's access to the outside world came only at night, when the streets were cleared of men, and only under a full veil.[2] Despite these restrictions, women generally saw more respect in Korea than in China. Female infanticide was not a regular practice.[4]

Gisaeng and Mudang

Not all women were restricted to the Confucian ideal. Two orders, the gisaeng and the mudang, existed outside traditional Joseon norms. The gisaeng were highly educated courtesans and dancers. They were trained in the arts from a young age to entertain court officials. Unlike most women, gisaeng could appear in public without a veil. They lived lives of relative luxury but were slaves to the state and of low status.

The mudang were female shamans, holdovers from the traditional folk religion of Korea. Like the gisaeng, they occupied a low status in Joseon society. In addition, peasant women likely did not face the same standards of etiquette as noble ladies.[5]


Changing Gender Dynamics in the 20th Century

The 20th century upended Korean society at all levels. Gone were the yangban and their sheltered wives and courtesans, replaced by foreign rulers and civil war. Korean women were frequent victims of the chaos. Between 1943 and 1945, as many as 70,000 Korean women were taken from their homes and forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese military.[6]

Atrocities continued during the Korean War. Throughout the fighting, women filled important roles on both sides. South Korean women typically stayed out of combat, but North Korean women fought alongside male soldiers. North Korea still enlists both genders as part of the largest standing army in the world.[7][8]

Gender Relations in Modern South Korea

After the turmoil of the 20th century, the Republic of Korea is still divided on gender equality. While younger generations generally support gender equality, their elders tend to remain more conservative. South Korea ranked 115th out of 145 nations in a recent study on gender equality. Despite these challenges, women now hold high positions in the corporate, political, and academic spheres of South Korea. It is likely that the nation's gender relations will continue to improve in the coming decades.[9]


  1. Yung-Chung Kim, Women of Korea: A History from Ancient Times to 1945 (Seoul: Ewha Womans University Press, 1977), 25.

  2. Dong-Sook Shin Gills, Rural Women and Triple Exploitation in Korean Development (New York: St. Martin's Press, Inc., 2016), 87-98.

  3. Michael J. Seth, A History of Korea: From Antiquity to the Present (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), 102-105.

  4. Kenneth B. Lee, Korea and East Asia: The Story of a Phoenix (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1997), 52.

  5. Laurel Kendall, Getting Married in Korea: Of Gender, Morality, and Modernity (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996).

  6. Chunghee Sarah Soh, The Comfort Women: Sexual Violence and Postcolonial Memory in Korea and Japan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 19-20.

  7. Keith A. Leitich, "Women and the Korean War," in Women and War: A Historical Encyclopedia From Antiquity to the Present, ed. Bernard A. Cook (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2006), 353-354.

  8. John Pike, "World's Largest Armies,", February 02, 2017,, accessed May 17, 2017.

  9. Se-Woong Koo, "South Korea's Misogyny," The New York Times, June 13, 2016, The New York Times, accessed May 17, 2017.

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