Celebrating women in South Korea

There is a news item in Salon.com today about the South Korean government’s decision to feature a woman on its bank notes.  This is the first time a woman has been chosen to be on South Korea’s currency and the government’s expressed reason is to “promote gender equality and women’s participation in society.”  So, why are there feminist groups protesting this move?

The person chosen by the government is Shin Saimdong.  Although an accomplished artist, she is remembered today primarily as the mother who helped nurture the talents of her son, Yi I, who is widely regarded as one of the greatest Confucian scholars in Korean history.  Thus, in announcing the choice, the government described her as “the best example of motherhood in Korean history.” Predictably, this did not go over well with some who protest that “they’re promoting women’s participation in society … through their children,” and “question whether Saimdang — as opposed to a Korean woman who managed to gain power and influence outside of the home — is the best choice for promoting gender equality.”

The writer of the article points out the paradox of the situation:

This is a lose-lose argument, really. It’s hard to argue that featuring a famed figure of motherhood on a banknote is sexist and insulting without seeming to sneer at mothers’ role in society. It’s also hard to celebrate this historic tribute to motherly influence without diminishing other women’s climbs to public power in male-dominated South Korea.


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