“Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss”

An interesting theme running through Martha Deuchler’s work on what were perceived as female virtues during the period of the Choson dynasty in Korea is that the education of women was not important in its own right.  Rather the value of such education was primarily, if not solely, for its benefits to the patriarchal structures of Confucian Korea. It appears that the main reason why women and girls were educated was that it made the lives of men easier, for marrying off their daughters or to better assist their husbands.1   Indeed, the importance of educating women did come from any sense of fairest or respect for women, but the exact opposite, because it was believed that women were deficient and it “was imperative for rectifying the womanly nature and bringing it in line with the moral exigencies of a Confucian society.”2  Education for women in Korean society was critical because of the risk caused by their lack of knowledge, not for their own benefit.  Any possible gains that women might obtain from such education were not the purpose of the education, but only a bi-product, since the main goal was to assist their husband and his household.3 This seems to be an unfortunate trend in how women’s education was justified in both Confucian societies and those societies seeking to reject the Confucian ideals, such as the New Culture Movement in China. Specifically, the reformers involved in the New Cultural Movement “advocated education and rights for women as necessary tools for improving the nation’s wives and mother.”4 This was not done to address the plight of women in China, but in terms of “national strengthening.”((Ibid)) This echoes, ironically, what the Korean Confucians were seeking to do vis-a-vis female education.   


In one of the first Korean treatises directed towards women, unsurprisingly called Instruction for Women written by Queen Consort Sohye, Lady Han in 1475, it is noted that “The rise or fall of the political order, although connected with the husband’s character, also depends on the wife’s goodness. She, therefore, must be educated. . . .”5   Clearly, the education of women was viewed as important, but it was not a value in its own right and always seems to circle back to what benefits it could provide to their husband. Likewise, an educated woman was seen as a valuable resource to assist with her children’s education (particularly the education of sons), but had little importance or respect as it related to her own worth or talent.6In a similar manner educated women could assist and support their husband’s career as scholar or in the civil service, but such actions were “behind the scenes.”7  Women might garner respect for such service to their children and husbands, but that was all it was – service to others – not for their own accomplishments. This represents a depressingly sexist and unflattering rationale for educating women.  However, it does not seem to have been limited to Korea, or just during the period of the Chosun dynasty. Indeed, years later during the new Cultural Movement in China reformers advocated for female education to make women “better companions” for their husbands and, therefore, to help advance China as a nation.8   This education initiative for women was to help men and to help China as a whole.  None of it was really proposed for the direct benefit or support of women, or because it was fair and just that women be educated for their own personal growth. Moreover, this education did not even change the status of women in their homes.9   Interestingly, this appears very similar to what Lady Han was seeking to do in Korea at a very different time.


  1. Dorothy Ko, JaHyun Kim Haboush, and Joan R. Piggott ed., Women and Confucian Cultures in Premodern China, Korea, and Japan, (University of California Press, 2003), p. 148. []
  2.  Ibid at 147-48. []
  3.  Ibid at 149. []
  4. Susan Glosser, Chinese Visions of Family and State, 1915-1953, (University of California Press, 2003), p.25. []
  5. Dorothy Ko, JaHyun Kim Haboush, and Joan R. Piggott ed., Women and Confucian Cultures in Premodern China, Korea, and Japan, p.147. []
  6. Ibid 150. []
  7. Ibid 152. []
  8. Susan Glosser, Chinese Visions of Family and State, 1915-1953, p. 78. []
  9. Ibid. []