The March 1st Movement Was Korean Women’s First Social Movement

The Historical Value and Heritage of the March 1st Movement (4)

Cho-Lee Yeoul | 기사입력 2021/03/20 [00:29]

The March 1st Movement Was Korean Women’s First Social Movement

The Historical Value and Heritage of the March 1st Movement (4)

Cho-Lee Yeoul | 입력 : 2021/03/20 [00:29]

Editor’s note: This is the final article in Ilda’s four-part series examining the role of women in the March 1st Independence Movement, documenting that time in women’s history, and considering its meaning. The March 1st Movement of 1919 (also referred to as the Manse Demonstrations, because “manse”—similar to the English “hurrah!”—was what protesters shouted) was one of Korea’s first large-scale displays of resistance to Japanese occupation.


The first time that women entered the political sphere


When the March 1st Movement broke out, Confucian culture was dominant, men and women were separate, and women’s voices could not be heard in the public sphere. In a society in which the virtues demanded of daughters were chastity and obedience, the March 1st Movement, in which schoolgirls planned manse demonstrations, directed demonstrators, and organized secret-society meetings, had great significance in the history of Korean women’s movements.


▲ “Yu Gwan-sun’s cave” ©Seodaemun Prison History Hall

In current scholarship regarding the March 1st Movement and other independence movements, there is not much literature on women’s subjecthood, activities, and the meaning of their participation. Even in the field of women’s studies, it is difficult to find attempts to illuminate the March 1st Movement’s place in women’s history. Let’s explore some valuable old materials among the records related to Korean women’s movements that feature mentions of the March 1st Movement.


An article with the title “A Historical Study of the Joseon(An old term for Korea) Women’s Movement,” which ran in the January 1, 1928 edition of the Dong-a Ilbo, states, “It is obvious that the March 1st Movement expanded the Joseon people’s political consciousness, but it is also safe to say that it was the first time that Joseon’s New Woman gained political consciousness of herself.”


The article claims that before the March 1st Movement, women’s movement ideology, which included women’s education, the “New Woman,” and Christian ideology, was quite limited because it stayed in the domain of daily life and out of politics.


It explains how the March 1st Movement, however, was an opportunity for women to develop their political consciousness, and a stepping stone for Joseon women to enter a wider arena after that. In this way, the March 1st Movement can be considered the “first stage” of the women’s movement.


“Before the March 1st Movement, the ideology of the few ‘New Women’ was merely that women should be educated. Their only activity was the creation of educational institutions promoting education for women. Their scope of vision was no wider than that... Women’s lives were extremely limited. Even Christians, who had become enlightened relatively early, did not step forward outside of the sphere of their faith. Joseon national movements that followed the March 1st Movement clearly changed relationships like this. They developed and expanded the consciousness of the New Woman. Women’s political consciousness began to develop at this time.” – Gyeon Won-saeng (鵑園生)


Loosening the bonds of antiquated beliefs


The 80-Year History of Ewha, published in 1967, also discusses the changes in women’s status and social situation that occurred because of the March 1st Movement.


The book documents how the activism of women who had participated in the independence movement contributed to women’s liberation and improved their status, and how they began to participate in social and political activities just like men.


“The antiquated feudal system that claimed ‘Women should be submissive to their husbands’ or ‘Women should follow their fathers, later their husbands, and finally their sons,’ was weakened by the homeland’s crisis and times changed so radically that it no longer had the power to confine educated women to a corner of the living room. During the March 1st Movement, most schoolgirls did not hesitate to risk their lives and stand on the front lines, and this kind of activity provided the opportunity to loosen women’s dual restraints of the feudal system and men.”


The 80-Year History of Ewha describes how after our society underwent the March 1st Movement and moved away from the awful feudal system, women’s status quickly improved to the level where they were recognized as human, and “the strains of the prelude to women enjoying freedom began to sound.”


Women’s social advancement and expanding political consciousness


In The History of Korean Women’s Movement: Focusing on the National Movement during the Japanese Colonial Rule, Jeong Yo-seob (1926-2005), a professor of political science and international relations at Sookmyung Women’s University, pronounces the March 1st Movement as “Korean women’s first social movement” and explains its significance in the women’s movement.


Professor Jung emphasizes the work of Korean female students in Tokyo in February 1919 for the recovery of national rights, and the role of the women who sacrificed themselves and participated in the March 1st Movement starting from the planning stages, writing, “From this time, women’s social participation received widespread approval, and thus the idea of women’s education gained support and a major step forward was taken.


As the women of our country, who had stayed home cultivating only the virtue of obedience, plunged into the independence movement, it became an opportunity for them to organize women’s groups and stage national movements and women’s modernization movements.


“The March 1st Movement paved the way for women’s social awakening, and the improvement in their status began thereafter. Consequently, the 1920s were a time when women’s entry into public life increased and their social self-realization came to fruition in every way.”


Professor Jung documents how the number of women’s groups organized after the March 1st Movement numbered between 70 and 80 by 1927, and how they led to other 1920s women’s groups like Geunwoohoe (active 1927-31).


▲ Panorama of Seodaemun Prison in 1930. When the number of inmates increased rapidly because of the March 1st Movement, Imperial Japan erected new buildings and operated it as a large-scale prison capable of holding around 3000 people.  ©Seodaemun Prison History Hall

The growth of the Korean women’s movement during the independence movement


History of Korean Women’s Independence Movement: 60th Anniversary of the March 1st Movement, published in 1980, introduces the achievements of female anti-Japan activists – 67 deceased, 40 still alive in 1980 – and emphasizes that the March 1st Movement was the catalyst for women’s entrance into public life and their first social movement.


A Study of Korean Women’s Anti-Japanese Movements, published in 1996 by Park Yong-ok, honorary president of The March 1st Sister’s Group and professor of sociology at Sungshin Women’s University, calls the March 1st Movement the cornerstone of a Korean women’s movement which developed in a different way from those in the West.


“Unlike those in Western nations, the women’s movement in our country mainly developed in the course of the anti-Japan independence movement. Therefore, women’s anti-Japanese activism was an essential factor in the establishment of the modern Korean woman.”


Professor Park points out that when the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea, the first democratic-republican government in our history, was founded in Shanghai in April of 1919, the democratic constitution that it presented stipulated gender equality.


“In as much as the Provisional Government was created according to the wishes of all Koreans, both at home and abroad, gender equality can be interpreted as the will of all Koreans.”


After the founding of the Provisional Government, many secret organizations formed to support it, both in Korea and abroad, and women, too, established many organizations in various places including Shanghai, Pyongyang, and Seoul, and started movements for independence, modernization, and education.


These kinds of research records show that women’s participation in the March 1st Movements has a place in the history of the Korean women’s movement and that it was the prelude to their gaining equal footing with men on the political stage.


As we honor Yu Gwan-sun again


Ewha Girls’ High School student Yu Gwan-sun (1902-1920), who planned and led the large-scale manse demonstration in Cheonan’s Aonae market, strongly protested in court by berating the judge that it was unfair for her to be tried by a man from Japan, a country that invaded others, and rejected the court’s authority, is celebrated as a notable figure and a symbol of the anti-Japan movement.


At her original trial, the then 16-year-old Yu was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, but with the time added for being in contempt of court, she was sentenced to a total of seven years.


Seodaemun Prison History Hall has restored the underground women’s cell block that was built by Imperial Japan to imprison and torture female independence activists. This cell block includes four individual cells of less than one pyeong (3.3 m2) each, too small to allow fully stretching out on one’s back, are grouped together.  This place is known as “Yu Gwan-sun’s cave,” because it is where Yu died for her country as a result of all manner of torture and cruel punishment.


According to the records of reporter Choi Eun-hui (who went by the pen name Chu-gye (秋溪)), though Yu was only a 16-year-old child, she was dressed in brown instead of the blue of most prisoners, and severely punished so that there was not an undamaged place on her whole body, as if she were a patient with a serious illness.


In prison on the first anniversary of the March 1st Movement, in 1920, Yu roused her fellow prisoners to hold a manse demonstration. Until her death in prison at the age of 17 on September 28th, 1920, she resisted Japanese imperialism and cried out for the recovery of Korea’s national sovereignty.


The popular portrayal of the March 1st Movement as a nationwide movement in which people of all ages and genders participated does not sufficiently describe the event. The bravery and spirit of the women who overcame cultural barriers of gender division, age discrimination, and social identity to lead nonviolent demonstrations in the face of Imperial Japan’s brutal sexual suppression absolutely must be remembered and appropriately valued.


Through this process of remembrance and analysis, we can get closer to the true historical nature of the March 1st Movement. We can also widen its meaning, appreciate it anew, and make it a part of women’s history as a spiritual legacy that can be invoked again for inspiration in the present.


By Cho-Lee Yeoul

Published March 19, 2013

Translated by Marilyn Hook


*Original article:


◆ To see more English-language articles from Ilda, visit our English blog(

  • 도배방지 이미지