“‘ New woman’ is the icon of the new femininity that started from the British trend in the 1890s and spread all over the world. Concretely it means ‘the woman who has the modern knowledge and pursues the new modern values and attitude, no longer remaining the passive person who has to be cared by the male’”
– National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art.
At Deoksugung Exhibition in National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, ‘The Arrival of New Women’ had been held from December 21, 2017 to April 1, 2018. It exhibited 100 paintings of 68 artists and about 500 pieces of sculpture, embroidery, picture, movie, magazine and so on from the end of the 19th century to the 1940s. This exhibition focusing on the ‘New Woman’ trend in Korea showed the life and thoughts of the new woman through the artworks which the new women made or became the subject in. The new women posed the question to the established order and stated the freedom and liberation. At the same time, they were used as the image of the desire for Western civilization with a boom in commercialism. This exhibition gave the visitors the chance to listen to their story and be on the road on which new women stepped.
Jobs of Modern Women
Prior to the early 1930s, very few women worked in offices or held salaried service jobs. Except for a few women who worked as teachers, doctors, or nurses, most women were working in factories or low-paying service industries. From the mid-1920s, however, newspapers and magazines began featuring articles that illustrated about “Modern Girl.” For example, articles reported on women working in cafes (nicknamed “Café-girl”), in department stores(“Depart-girl), as elevator attendants(“Hello-girl”), as attendants on buses(“Bus-girl) or in theaters(“Ticket-girl”). These articles show that women could work in various positions and that the range of jobs available to women gradually expanded over time.
The magazine for the women, 『The Woman』, shows this phenomenon. 『The Woman』 was published in 1934. The waitresses who worked in the prevail café around Kyungsung made this magazine to upgrade their social status. The waitress at that time was not just woman working in the café but played the key role in the newly emerging culture.
Magazine for Women
The magazine played an important role in educating and enlightening the people in the modern era. Back then, most women could not get the chance to go to school and the illiteracy rate among women was high. In this cultural background, some magazine began to be published with the special goal of educating the women.
The magazine 『New Woman』 featured the cover with the female students wearing the school uniform with a modern hairstyle. This magazine wanted the women to bail out of the traditional woman role and to evoke aspiration for the education. New Woman intended to do the role as the catalyst of enlightening the woman. Moreover, the illustration of Na Hye-seok, 『What is that』 in New Woman, had an important meaning in the modern era. The conversation of three men presented in this illustration shows the ambivalent standard of seeing the new woman. This illustration is satirizing this modern social situation where the ridicule in and envy of the new woman coexisted. The followings are the talks in this illustration.
The talks of two men.
‘What is that woman holding?’ ‘Maybe, it’s a kind of Western zither.’
‘How arrogant she is.’ ‘Is there any man who wants to marry her? I think there isn’t’
The talk of the other man
‘How pretty that woman is. If I hadn’t married……is there any chance saying hello?’
Women’s Liberation vs. “Good Wife”
“New Woman” was born in the world with the modern realization of the women’s education and the women’s liberation. The liberation from the traditional women role was an important issue in Korea. The women had been pressed to be a good wife and a wise mother rather than to be herself. The sentence “Woman is also human” evoked the people to be conscious of the problem of the feudal social order and realize that the woman should be recognized as an independent person.
Modoen Gamsanggi』 of Na Hye-seok shows grief of the woman who should be a good wife under the social pressure. 『Modoen Gamsanggi』 is the essay Na Hye-seok wrote to give her thoughts on being a mother after her first delivery. She stated, “Maternalism is not an instinct” and described the suffering and distressed mind about pregnancy, delivery, and childrearing in detail. She casted some doubts on social recognition about maternalism and mother’s role through her writings. This essay created a stir in the feudal society where there is no wonder thinking the woman role as the “good wife.”
Many intellectuals enlightening people including new women began to state that the social convention of parents choosing their children’s spouse should be broken down. They said this old convention was the outmoded and inhumane custom and it should be abolished to join in the stream of the modern era. At that time, most women could not love freely and choose their partner on their own. New women asserted women’s right to love with whoever they want to love, which made the concept of “free love” emerge.
Woman confessing her love was considered “unusual” because most women were described as obedient and passive characters in popular songs from the 1920s to 1930s. But some new women denied this stereotype and sang the songs expressing the feeling of love to men. Some popular examples of them are “Italian Garden” by Choi Seung-hee and “I’m Seventeen” by Park Dahn-ma. You can see the shy but active girl in the lyrics of “I’m Seventeen.”
You know? My heart is knocking wildly.
Only you can know. I’m seventeen years old.
Come to me.
Just come under the willow tree where a yellow bird is dreaming.
New woman posed the problem of the discrimination in many social aspects and pursued freedom and liberation. Although some new women were regarded as “precedent” or “smart” women, most of them were considered “bad” or “relentless.” Some great achievements of Na Hye-seok who is the first artist of Western painting in Korea were shrouded with the meaningless scandals. But many new women lifted up their voice for the enlightenment of woman and the liberation from the feudal social rule through the various media. They tried to break the social stereotype about “woman” through not only art but also through literature, dance, popular songs and the social movement.
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