Isn’t a Woman a Person?

Living in South Korea as a Young Woman: Gender Discrimination in Language

Na-seon | 기사입력 2022/11/30 [11:59]

Isn’t a Woman a Person?

Living in South Korea as a Young Woman: Gender Discrimination in Language

Na-seon | 입력 : 2022/11/30 [11:59]

※ Editor’s note: To begin a new feminist discourse in 2016, Ilda is running a series on “Living as a Young Woman in South Korea.” The series receives support from the Korea Foundation for Women’s “Funding for Gender-Equal Society.”


The word “men” means “humanity”?


There’s an old riddle that goes like this: a boy is injured in a traffic accident and taken to a hospital. His father, having heard the news, is waiting anxiously outside the operating room. The doctor assigned to perform the surgery suddenly refuses, saying, “I can’t do it. This boy is my son.” How is this possible?


Actually, there could be a few answers to this riddle. The father and surgeon could be the child’s birth father and adoptive father or they could be in a same-sex marriage, but the common response is, “The doctor is the child’s mother.” The trap in this riddle is that it’s not stated that the doctor is a man. It works because when there’s no gender descriptor, people assume that a doctor is a man.


▲ Common and casual ways of speaking endlessly teach that a woman isn’t a person. (pixabay)


In the essay “The His’er Problem” in her book Marrying Libraries [published in the US under the title Ex Libris in 2000], American author and editor Anne Fadiman raises questions about male generic nouns. Do we have to think that the third-person pronoun “he” naturally includes people who aren’t men? When an author describes an unspecified person as “he,” does this include space for all people, including women, but is simply shortened for convenience? Does “mankind” include womankind?


Ms. Fadiman had a chance to ask an author this question directly. She had read something that her father, author and broadcast personality Clifton Fadiman, wrote long ago in which he used “men” to mean “people.” When she asked him what “men” meant, whether it really included all people, he answered his daughter honestly.


“Males. I was thinking about males. I viewed the world of literature – indeed, the entire world of artistic creation – as a world of males, and so did most writers. Any writer of fifty years ago who denies this is lying. Any male writers, I mean.”


In the same essay, Ms. Fadiman introduced an anecdote about her mother, Annalee Jacoby. A war correspondent, Ms. Jacoby had coauthored Thunder out of China with Theodore H. White. But even though they were given the same credit on the book’s cover, people didn’t recognize this. According to Ms. Fadiman, the difference was clear from the introduction: “In his foreword to the new edition, Harrison Salisbury mentioned White nineteen times and my mother once.”


Salisbury began his introduction with the sentence, “There is, in the end, no substitute for the right man in the right place at the right moment.” Fadiman sent him a letter pointing out that one of the book’s authors was not a man, and that he could have written “right woman in the right place at the right moment” instead. Salisbury wrote back agreeing with her and apologizing. In her essay, Fadiman concludes, “I believe that Salisbury was motivated by neither malice nor premeditated sexism; my mother, by being a woman, just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong moment.”


In every language, there still sometimes cases in which “men” is used to mean “people.” And people who aren’t men are naturally excluded. The gap between “women” and people is as large as that between doctors and “female” doctors, heroes and “heroines.”


A woman’s age is like Christmas cake?


Our words are used unequally with respect to gender. Take the term “attractively middle-aged” [mi-jung-nyeon]. It usually describes good-looking middle-aged men. Men with lines on their faces, dapper clothing, and life experience. But a middle-aged woman with wrinkles and life experience is seldom called attractively middle-aged. Instead, we say she has “a beauty that conquers age” or “the figure of someone in her twenties,” comparing her with younger ages as a compliment. It’s as if there’s no charm a woman can have outside of a youthful appearance.


In May 21 of last year, U.K. news outlet The Guardian reported that Maggie Gyllenhaal, winner of acting awards at several international film festivals, was told that, at 37, she was “too old” for a role as the romantic partner of a 55-year-old male actor. But when an actress in her 20s is paired with an actor in his 50s for a movie, no one says that he is too old for her.


▲ In Woody Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight, the male lead is nearly twice the age of the female lead, but the movie ignores this. Would it be the same if the genders were reversed?


In Woody Allen’s movie Magic in the Moonlight (2014), the main couple are played by 26-year-old Emma Stone and 54-year-old Colin Firth. But the movie smoothly ignores this age gap, as if it were a negligible five or six years. Robert De Niro, who’s past 70, still appears onscreen playing cool, manly, experienced older leading men. I’m curious whether Cate Blanchett will be able to shoot multiple movies playing a cool lead character when she’s over 70.


Everyone ages, but it is much easier for men to be called “attractively middle-aged” or “attractively elderly.” As someone who grew up hearing that “a woman’s age is like Christmas cake – when it passes the 25th, no one wants to buy it,” when I was in my 20s I actually thought that when I passed that age, I would become a has-been whom no one would date. Until, that is, I realized that becoming mature as you age is an important charm, that the process that seemed natural only for men also applied to me.


What is said to daughters


I can’t leave out the things I’ve been told in my role as a daughter. In comparison to the places of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters’ places require them to be more gentle and kind. I fought back every time I was subjected to harsh criticism from my father from a young age, and because of this, people around me gave me endless advice. “You’re his daughter so you should act cute and amiable,” “What kind of little girl is so stubborn?” “You’re his daughter so you should do what you’re told,” “Your father’s like that because he’s been hurt. It’s your job as his daughter to understand him.”


Because you’re a daughter, because you’re a girl...what strange and tiresome things to say. I was just born a girl, not someone who is sweet, nice, or cutesy. In other words, there’s no law saying a woman has to be sweet, nice, or cutesy. In fact, shouldn’t it be boys, who are so prone to violence, that are advised to be gentle and kind? When my father screamed, threw things, and cursed at his family, that was his problem, not mine for lacking cuteness.


I don’t think that my father is unusually violent. But the atmosphere that lets him speak and act in ways that hurt others just because of his position in the family is scary. When I’ve told people that my father was scary and made my life hard, the reaction I hated the most was someone who didn’t think about my position as someone suffering abuse, but told me to look at things from my father’s perspective by saying, “Your father deserves pity too.” It’s a common remark made without ill will, but that also makes it more powerful.


It’s common for comments about “poor men” to follow stories of violence against women. Other extensions of this are comments about wives who were beaten because “you made him angry,” women raped “because you were out late at night,” stories of violence committed out of sudden anger “because I couldn’t get a job,” “because you look like my wife, who left me,” “because you talked back.” They even say they are having difficulties “because women won’t date me” or “because women live so well.” On the other hand, just as they are told to be a certain way because they are daughters, women hear, “You’re a woman so you need to take care of yourself,” or, “How dare a woman...?”


When I see that kind of “sad story,” I think instead of the “disgraceful” wife, daughter, girlfriend, or other innocent women pulled into it. These other people besides the dominant one who appear in a “poor man” story are too often pushed into the background or, like me, omitted or erased from it.


Questions only asked to female workers


Women in the working world, women of my age range, have to be ready to answer the questions that are only asked to “female workers.” You’re a woman but... can you work until late at night? Can you drink alcohol? Why did you graduate so late [even though you didn’t have mandatory military service]? Do you plan to get married? If you get married, what will you do when you have kids?


▲ “Breast size C cup or larger,” “Face like [actress] Yoo In-na” YTN News reported on controversy over a marketing firm’s ad for interns


During a job consultation and mock interview, I was advised, “But you’re a woman so you shouldn’t appear too strong,” “Managers hate it if you seem like you won’t conform to the organization.” From older friends who got jobs before me, I heard the report “I was the only woman called in for an interview,” the complaint, “The upper age limit really is 24 years old,” and the advice, “Definitely say that your mom takes care of your kids and don’t even think about bringing up child-care leave.” Surprisingly, incidents in which female workers who get married are told, “No woman has worked at this company after getting married,” and pressured to quit still happen.


“Clean-cut,” a phrase that is mainly used in job ads for female workers, doesn’t really mean “clean-cut.” In December of last year, a marketing firm included the phrases “C cup or larger” and “combines beauty and intellect” in a job listing for a intern in the marketing/planning field. Differentiating qualifications by gender when advertising or hiring is a violation of the Act on Equal Employment. What’s more, a marketing intern’s work is not displaying sex appeal. Talking about C cups or whatever is ultimately a declaration that women are not recognized as colleagues.


Korean Womenlink’s booklet Am I The Only One Having a Hard Time?, which was made based on interviews with working women in their 20s and 30s, shows that the difficulties women face in the working world are not isolated incidents but so common and powerful that you don’t know where to start with them. For example, there’s this incident:


“At my first job, one odd thing about our performance evaluations is that each member of a department was ranked. So if there were 5 people in a department, there would be an A, B, C, D, and E, and one person has to be the member who gets an E.  Many female workers would get the lowest rating for no reason. (...) They would say that a man must be promoted quickly because he has a family to support. So from the beginning men were preferred for promotions, regardless of their skill.


In contrast, the questions about marriage that female workers get are closer to asking about whether they will quit than whether they will be promoted. It’s common to hear that men need promotions “because they have families,” but no one seems to think about the women who support themselves or even family members like their parents. As long as beliefs like “a woman’s place is in the home” or “a woman’s main job is to support her husband” are still held, working women are treated like temporary workers or exceptional cases. According to the “2016 Women’s Life Through Statistics” published by the National Statistical Office and Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, the pay that I will get as a woman is 62.8% that of men. That’s the average pay of women workers in South Korea.


Even professional jobs that involve a level of social success aren’t free from the “but you’re still a woman” denigration. In a class on feminism that I once took, the question of why male professors are called “professor” but female professor are called “teacher” came up. I know why that question came up. A male professor from a different department, who had given me a part-time job, had once asked whether there were a lot of female professors in my department, and then asked, “Are they pretty?” It would have been easier to answer if he had asked, “Are they famous?” or “Do they win a lot of grants?” Among the things that could be said of the faculty in my department, I had never thought of the question of whether or not they were pretty.  Maybe to that professor, “professor” and “female professor” were two different categories. I had no chance to talk about the research achievements or teaching style of my “female professors.”


“We have always fought” to be people


In an article entitled, “‘We Have Always Fought’: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle, and Slaves’ Narrative,” American sci-fi author Kameron Hurley told about seeing a reality show about Alaskan bush pilots. All of the pilots were given an introduction except for the lone female pilot, who was only described as another pilot’s girlfriend. It was only after the couple broke up that she was given a proper introduction, which told of how she was an ace pilot who had worked for four times longer than her ex-boyfriend and was also a skilled hunter, fisher, and ice-wall climber.


Former Supreme Court Justice Kim Yeong-ran reported a similar experience.


“When I was a judge, a man said to me, ‘Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher made breakfast for her husband every morning even though she was the leader of a nation. Isn’t that great?’ I was surprised not only because he could not have known whether she had really done that, but that her greatness could be judged on that kind of standard. Actually, couldn’t that compliment have cast most of the working married women in our country as being as great as Ms. Thatcher? At that time, I was making breakfast for my husband and children, of course, but also my parents-in-law, so I didn’t even think of opposing that comment (really, I didn’t have the strength to talk back every single time) and instead just smiled.” – Kim Yeong-ran, in a recommendation for the book We Should All Be Feminists (2016).


Feminism is “the radical notion that women are people” and “a question to the authority that distinguishes between ‘a man’ and ‘a man’s woman’” (Jeong Hui-jin, “That Man’s Women, The Second Sex,” The Hankyoreh, July 3, 2015). Common remarks and casual comments endlessly teach me that a woman isn’t a person. And inside that language, real women, women who “speak, act up, and think,” and women who’ve already accomplished things that are “impossible for women” are erased.


As someone who lives in Korea, where femininity is demanded, I learned to ask in return, “Isn’t a woman a person?” I don’t think that I, as a woman, am powerless. It’s speech that doesn’t consider women as equal that makes me powerless. Just like in many other areas, changing the speech doesn’t mean that the underlying discrimination and stereotyping will disappear at once. But I believe that changing these aspects of speech, one by one, is the process of resisting discrimination and stereotyping and promoting change. These aspects, I mean, that tell female people to just be women, not doctors, professors, coworkers, or people.


Published: July 7, 2016

Translated by Marilyn Hook

Original article


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