The unfamiliar word ‘feminism’ is now becoming commonplace. Let’s dig into the idea behind the word. Hearing the word, positive ideas like increasing women's rights or negative thoughts like radical exercise may come to mind. These stereotypes blind peoples’ eyes and make it difficult for people to grasp the nature of the problem. There is a person who listens to minorities’ voices attentively to solve these issues. She says people have to respect each other based on feminism. SMT met Kim Sunmi, who studied Japanese literature at university and later studied women's studies in graduate school. She is concerned with feminism for all.
Would you please introduce yourself to SMT readers?
I graduated from a graduate school of women’s studies, and I am currently teaching women’s studies at the University of Seoul. I also worked as a reporter and editor for a Japanese newspaper and The Women’s News. In addition, to empower the voices of women and minorities, I translated some Japanese books. Most recently, I became interested in women who have been forgotten in history. In order to promote and honor the career of Potter Baek Paseon, who made a great contribution to the dissemination of ceramics technology to Japan, the Baek Paseon Research Institute opened on August 23. I was inaugurated as a director of the institute.
Did you have any special opportunity to study women’s studies?
As I just mentioned, I am a graduate of a graduate school of women's studies, but my undergraduate degree was in the Japanese language. Studying Japanese, I felt the injustice women had to endure for being female. I knew at that time I wanted to continue my studies in women's studies, but I couldn't put it into action. I got the chance to work for a Japanese newspaper, but I had to quit the job and return to Korea because of my child’s birth. After a career, marriage, and leaving my job due to childbirth, I felt that living as a mother, a career woman, a daughter-in-law, and a wife isn't easy in Korea. I was curious about the causes and reasons for the injustice and inconveniences that women suffer. Also, I wanted to have a voice with power so that my criticism wouldn't just sound like grumbling. That's why I decided to major in women's studies and started to work as a female scholar at the age of 40. It completely changed my life.
Have you found any connection between Japanese literature and women’s studies?
In the past, women had no voice and were forbidden to speak their minds, so they voiced their personal thoughts through literature such as diaries. It was through women's literature that I learned about the reality of women's lives in the past. I followed the footprints left behind by Japanese women. I was especially interested in the suffering of Korean women living in Japan, who were categorized as minorities in literature. In addition to women, other minorities were also classified as non-mainstream and suffered from discriminating. I look at the problem by connecting Korea and Japan. For example, sexual slavery by the Japanese military was not only sexual criminal behavior, but it was also gender discrimination and social position problem. Since one problem is related to many problems, I don't think the sexual slavery problem can be resolved solely by viewing sexual slavery as being all about sex. Therefore, I am working to resolve the matter by discussing the matter with Japanese women who criticize Japan due to that. I translate books for the same reason. The translation is one way Korean society can better learn of the discrimination and abhorrence that minorities around the world receive. I think I am a vital part of this awareness as I raise people’s mindfulness towards the struggles of minorities and instill in them a call to action.
With the multitude of women scholars, why did you focus on Matsui Yayori?
Matsui Yayori is the first female staff to retire from the Asahi Newspaper. She was non-mainstream in terms of gender and religion; however, her articles always deal with discrimination and injustice, much of which she had direct experience with. Beyond her articles on injustices, she also criticized atrocities such as 'gisaeng tours'. These tours involved Japanese men traveling to Korea to buy sex from Korean women. Most women consider the discrimination they have experienced first. However, I think every woman must not forget this idea: people on the other side of the world will also be suffering from the same injustice. Matsui Yayori showed others that women's movement is universal and it spreads beyond borders. I focused on Matsui Yayori because I want everyone to enjoy equal rights and not to be discriminated against due to nationality, gender, age, and wealth.
As a feminist who is married and has a child, what are your thoughts on marriage, childbirth, and feminism?
In the past, lots of people thought a feminist was a single or childless female. Indeed, there are feminists who are single and don’t have children, but if you look around more, you will find feminists in diverse states. For me, I didn’t major in women’s studies until after getting married and having three children. That doesn’t mean I was not a feminist before I got married. I have always cared about women’s rights, and I was indignant about the injustices I personally encountered just being a woman. I didn’t define myself as a feminist at that time, but I was already a feminist. I just started to say I was a feminist after having my children. For feminists, marriage and childbirth is a matter of choice. Feminists are not bound by any specific frame. Anyone from any household can be a feminist. I am one such example.
To realize equality, especially gender equality, what do you think should be done first?
All must be done, but I guess first and foremost is ‘respect’. Many women of my generation had to suppress their career desires so that their brothers could succeed. Even if the daughter was far more remarkable than her brothers, she had to give up her desires so that her brothers could succeed. Each woman was an individual of the society, but they were denied basic rights as an individual. Awareness of human rights has increased, but in many cases even now females are not respected. Recently in the news, a Korean man assaulted his Vietnamese wife because he thought of his wife as his personal belongings. Every human being wants to be respected. When respect is shown, men and women are equal and women are no longer under patriarchy. Regardless of one’s sex, wealth, nationality, or race, everyone has the right to dignity and equality and these can be educated.
Listening to your words, you sound concerned with all types of minorities.
Women’s rights are important topics for a women’s studies scholar. However, women’s studies is not only about women versus men. It’s about criticizing situations where a person is suppressed by or treated as a subordinate and as a result, their rights are suppressed by the group. The subjects of subordination and suppression can be women, but the subjects could also be non-western, non-white, sexual minorities, or the disabled. Some are not guaranteed even a tenth of a human right. Women account for half of the entire world population despite being categorized as a minority. Therefore, their rights are my lifelong agenda. The society also needs to eliminate sexism to truly realize equality. Besides sexism, there are other kinds of social discrimination that appear continuously just like whack-a-mole. That’s the reason I focus on women and all others who aren’t being respected as human beings and work to raise their dignity. Especially for me, I pay attention to Korean-Japanese relations since I worked for several years in Japan. In Japan, females’ human rights are infringed and reviled. It is a historical problem that has been repeated continuously. In other words, it is not a single case problem that can be solved. It is related to the system and history just like sexism is not a problem solely related to the family. It’s connected to problems with social structure. To fix the problem, there is a need for large scale awareness and concern.
What types of hardships have you personally confronted as a feminist?
I feel most difficult when I am trying to rectify misunderstandings about feminism but don’t have enough time. Listening to how people view feminism, I am stunned at the strange images they voice. Many are so distorted that I sometimes think to myself, ‘Do I really come across like that?’ If time permits, I pleasurably explain feminism to them. However, if the person doesn’t have the time to talk with me, we depart and they continue on with their own distorted image of feminism. They do not let me explain and they shut themselves off from me. Their distorted images and misunderstandings lead to further lack of communication. That makes me feel bad.
In contrast, what are some of your most rewarding moments as a feminist?
I’m educating my students on intellectual women's movement. I introduce new research methods and ideas related to women's studies. As a feminist, one of the most rewarding moments is to see students discussing, with a critical mind, gender issues even after taking my classes. It is said that women and men are equal, but listening to students’ stories, it is clear that discrimination is still prevalent in society. Sometimes I feel society has changed little from the past. Nevertheless, it is wonderful to see how society is talking about social problems, criticizing them, and working towards change. Some students have even sent me e-mails asking for advice when they encounter problems at their workplaces after graduating from university. Students who seek to change their social groups give me a sense of pride.
Can you tell us more about the female potter Baek Paseon Research Institute?
Matsui Yayori achieved greatness during her time, but she has gone much unnoticed because males typically wrote about historical events or people. I think Baek Paseon was also overlooked, too. When the Japanese invaded Korea, Korean potters were taken to Japan regardless of gender. However, in Arita, a region famous for its pottery, only Yi Sampyeong, renowned as the father of pottery, is worshipped like a god. Little is known about Baek. Baek Paseon is not her real name. It’s actually translated as an old lady who lived nearly a hundred years old. It was given to her by her descendants. Because she was a woman, she had no name, and her work did not receive the recognition it deserves. As director of Baek Paseon Research Institute, I am working on bringing her life to the public eye, which has been hidden for over 100 years. I think it's very important to recognize the lives of women like Baek and empathize with them. I hope Sookmyungians who read this article give her the respect and attention she deserves.
What are your short-term and long-term plans?
Women are not mentioned as often as men when students are asked about their role models because female role models are not well-known. I want to promote awareness about women who have achieved greatness but are undervalued or unknown in Korean society. People can contribute to society in a variety of ways throughout their lives. However, even though these people hold fast to their belief in human rights, justice, and democratization, they face a lack of academic support, which limits the promotion of their person's thoughts and activities and only highlights the action of an intellectual. Therefore, I would like to work on the promotion and illumination of women who had no power or knowledge in society but struggled to make Korean society better. The Baek Paseon Research Institute is one such example.
Last, please leave a final message for Sookmyungians.
I think there are likely many feminists at Sookmyung Women's University. Any woman who wants to be respected as their male counterpart in society and is willing to work for that respect is a feminist. I hope that the Sookmyungians become people of the world concerned about transnational issues such as their own rights, the rights of women across the globe, the rights of people from different social statuses, and the rights of people from different races. Also, I hope Sookmyungians reach out their hands to people who are denied basic rights as human beings and tell them, “Your rights deserve to be respected.” I think this behavior is representative of true feminism.
- Ph.D. in Women’s Studies at Ewha Womans University
- Written The Study on Matsui Yayori's Transnational Women's Movement as a Doctorate Thesis
- Translated Love Rage Fight With Courage (2014), Disenfranchised : Victims of Development in Asia (2015), What Is Japanese Style Hate Speech? (2018)
- Lecturer of Women’s Studies at the University of Seoul
- Director of Baek Paseon Research Institute
Kim Ma Seunghee / Editor-in-Chief
Ahn Ha Yura / Reporter
Kim Lee Hyunmin / Reporter