Lee Tai Young 

Hyung Joo Yang Northern Valley Regional High School at Demarest (12th grade)

Imagine I lived a 100 years ago in Korea. Could I, a girl, enter this contest? Would I know how to read or write in the first place? Probably not. I would have received minimal education, if any at all. But times have changed indeed. Today, more than 70% of Korean women go to college and pursue careers. How was this dramatic change possible? Because women were given equal rights and opportunities to men, thanks to a lady named Lee Tai Young.

Lee was born in 1914. If you were a girl at the time, all you had to know was how to be a good wife and mother. Women who pursued careers had to give up marriage, but Lee gave up nothing. She studied law at Seoul National University while taking care of her husband and four children. Talk about multitasking! Finally, in 1952, Lee passed the bar exam, becoming the first female lawyer in Korean history.

What’s more amazing? This was only the beginning. As soon as Lee opened her law office, hordes of women walked in. Those women had been battered or abandoned by their husbands and needed help. Lee was their last hope as the only female lawyer in the nation.

So Lee founded the Women’s Legal Counseling Center and provided legal assistance to women who had nowhere else to go. While helping those women, Lee realized that Korean law was written only from the men’s perspective. The rights of women were marginalized if mentioned at all. For instance, daughters inherited less than sons and married women couldn’t inherit anything at all. Divorced or widowed women could not remarry within six months, while men were free to do so.

Korea also had the Hoju system, which registered family members under a Hoju, meaning ‘head of the household’. In this system, males took priority over females. In other words, if a man died, his baby son became head of the family rather than his wife or other elder daughters. This was a continuation of the Confucian idea that women had to “obey their father, husband and son”. Most Korean women accepted these inequalities as a traditional way of life. Not Lee. Lee believed that society needed to let women participate as equal beings in order to prosper. For the rest of her life, Lee fought to reform the law.

However, Korea’s military regime persecuted civil rights in general and women’s rights were certainly not its priority. For decades, Korean courts ignored issues that Lee raised. The irritated regime even arrested and temporarily disbarred her. None of that stopped her. All her life, Lee was the voice of those who were forced to be silenced; not only women, but also democracy activists who were persecuted by the dictatorship.

Thanks to Lee’s endless efforts, the law was finally reformed in the 70s and 90s. Today, as a result, Korean women no longer need their husbands’ approval to take legal action. Men and women have equal rights in divorce and custody. Daughters, married or not, can inherit as much as sons.

And although Lee did not live to see it, the Hoju system was abolished in 2005 so we can be registered as individuals rather than under a male head. All of these rights sound so obvious to us and we take them for granted. But without Lee’s efforts, we’d still be dreaming of them.

Since Lee’s time, Korea has advanced in every possible way, in terms of economy, reputation, and civil rights. I believe Korea has become such a prosperous country because women, half of her people, were given the chance to contribute. As Lee Tai Young always said, “we boys and girls were created equally… so that we can serve all humanity”. So let us cherish the equality we have today and work together to make an even better world.