“In 1906, Myungshin Girls’ School opened as the first Korean national women’s private school. In a period when women had difficulty receiving an education, the Emperor of the Korean empire, Gojong and Empress Sunheon thought our country’s future depended on women’s education.” Sounds familiar? If you are a Sookmyungian, you will have likely heard this several times on the school promotional video. Who exactly is Empress Sunheon? SMT reporters visited renowned historian and Sookmyung Women’s University emeritus professor of the Department of History and Culture, Han Hee-sook to hear her thoughts on the importance of women in history.
What made you specialize in history and become a professor?
Honestly, there was no particular reason for choosing to study history. During my youth and until high school, it was very difficult for women to travel outside the house. My father was especially strict, so I never left my hometown until high school except to go to a Seoul hospital when I was ill. By specializing in history, I entered a new world and my parents allowed me to travel in order to explore historical sites. I guess I choose to study history to learn about the world and travel. After graduating from Sookmyung, I didn't want to return to my hometown, so decided to enter graduate school at Korea University to further my studies. I studied at least eight hours a day because studying is the most important responsibility of a student, and worked hard to build my skills and to make sure I did not tarnish Sookmyung Women's University’s reputation. As a result, I earned both a Masters and a Doctorate degree early, and was hired to be a Korean history professor at Sookmyung Women's University.
As a women’s history lecturer at Sookmyung Women’s University, what do you think is the importance of women in higher education and the impact on society?
I have taught Korean women history for a long time. I think there is a great need for Korean to study and research Korean women. Women in Korea have not had much exposure to social functions outside home, but they are raising their voice through the development of history. Korean women history has not been studied much because of the tendency to focus on the history of men, but women’s history is not peripheral history. Male historians have generally overlooked women in history, so it is one of my duties to research and spread the history of women. It’s my calling and justification. In addition, I think history department students should all be required to take at least one course on Korean women’s history. The higher the status of a women, the greater the interest in women’s history, so with women reaching higher status today in Korea, there is higher demand for special lectures on women’s history. The field of female history should not be a subordinate anymore. It is time for a new history book that encompasses new research on women’s history and movements.
You are also working on establishing a women's history museum. Why does our nation need a separate museum for women’s history and what do you care about most in the process of its construction?
An association aimed at establishing a women’s history museum was established in 2013, and since that year, many people have been pushing for its creation. Currently, the National Women's Exhibit Hall is located in Goyang, but its status is low and it is scaled-down. It needs to be redesigned as a museum and moved to a new site better suited to national status. Women's history museums are being built around the world. While there are those who claim there is no need for a women’s history museum in Korea, there is indeed a need for a specialized museum because of the lack of stories about women in history. Everyone should be aware of the importance of Korean women in history, from ancient times to the present. The establishment of a women's history museum will help foster a sense of gender equality and establish a balanced historical view. The most important things are to build it in a suitable location, employ professional personnel for its operations, and secure operational funds in order to develop and maintain the facility. It will take a lot of people and money, and because it is related to the nation, it must be done right as it will be viewed by people in the nation. Personally, I hope the museum is built on the land where the current U.S. military base is after it has been fully relocated to Pyeongtaek.
What should students do to inform others of correct history?
First, it is difficult to differentiate between what is correct and what is wrong. One should learn at school, but I hope students read beyond course required reading and build abilities to decide what is right and wrong for themselves. Proper historic consciousness is only achieved through study, thought, and debate. With this in mind, I recommend students to protect and promote our history. In order to protect history, students must raise their voices against incorrect or skewed historical facts. University students are intellectuals with the ability to critically analyze what is right from what is wrong and act on it. Promoting proper history is another important role. There are many ways to accomplish this such as working as interns or docents at museums. It is also important to have a good command of foreign languages and promote Korean history to foreigners in Korea or to people in other parts of the world.
Please tell us about your plans for the future.
My goal is to do my best as a professor. When it comes to education, I listen to the needs and interests of students. I'd like to publish more research and write more books, or organize my work into a series of books. I don't have much free time, but I’d like to also write a book about the divorce practices of the Joseon royal family. There is a lot of information about the marriage practices but very little on divorce. There were plenty of royal family members who divorced for political and personal reasons, and I’d like to study this lifestyle. I’m sure a lot of the research would show discrimination against women but it was much worse than it is now. I also want to write a book about the story of Im Kkeokjeong and other bandits. This is going to be the last, I want to write down the history of Korean women as well. Since my endeavors would need the assistance of experts from different fields working in collaboration, I am still thinking about it. If I could find a good balance between research and education, I would then like to do community service related to informing others about women's history. I would like to participate in events that promote women's human rights, status, and history.
Before leaving, would you please leave some words of advice to your fellow Sookmyungians, the future leaders of the world?
I wish students take time to reflect on their lives and ask themselves what they truly want. In reality, a lot of people think this is hard without even trying to think over who they are. Find your true self and confidence, and with those realizations, study passionately. There is nothing in this world that one can achieve without effort. If you truly desire something, put forth all your effort, for there is nothing one cannot obtain. One thing I strongly recommend is that students learn English and Chinese in order to communicate with others in today’s global world and build domain expertise. I hope all Sookmyungians set high goals for themselves and build the confidence to face challenges.
- Graduate of Department of History of Sookmyung Women’s University ‘78
- Master's & Doctoral Degree at Korea University Graduate School
- Present Emeritus Professor of the Department of History and Culture at Sookmyung Women’s University
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