Korean National Council of Women

Cold War Feminism

By Katri Kauhanen

Cold War history is no longer simply history of great powers, diplomacy and war. Women’s and gender history has rapidly paved the way for gendered interpretations of the period that greatly shaped the way the world looks today.

The Cold war era included multiple feminist manifestations and womanly imaginaries. On the one hand, we have the conservative 1950s and the domestic ideal of housewife that Betty Friedan described in her Feminine Mystique (1963), on the other hand the late 1960s witnessed a severe outburst of women’s experiences on gender inequality, sexual harassment and power oppression. The United Nations celebrated 1975 as the International Women’s Year and in the 1980s female figures as different as Madonna and Margaret Thatcher showed what women can be and do. How did the Cold War influence these events and many more?

In my PhD dissertation I study the concept ‘Cold War feminism’ by asking how feminism was interpreted in the context of the Cold War. Cold War feminism refers not only to the idea of gender justice but to the multiple explorations and explanations how feminism could be practiced and how gender equality could be achieved. Cold War feminism is by nature understood as a transnational project. Transnational history of global feminisms complicates the idea of wave feminism and makes visible how feminist projects in different parts of the world emerged and resonated with each other. Furthermore, it challenges the idea that feminisms always originates from the West.

In my work, I examine more closely how Cold War feminism was practiced in South Korea from 1950s to 1980s. To do so, I look at the relationship between a South Korean women’s organization, the Korean National Council of Women, and its international head organization, the International Council of Women. In other words, my approach focuses on the activities of women’s organizations on national and transnational levels. International Council of Women was one of the organizations that received a consultative status at the newly established United Nations and became active participant in the discussions at the Commission on the Status of Women. Through its involvement in the International Council of Women since 1960, the Korean National Council of Women became a mediator between the global movement to improve the status of women and the local conditions in quickly modernizing South Korea.

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The Cold War drove also the women’s organizations into a war with each other. The old organizations, like the International Council of Women, got challenged by a new-comer, the Women’s International Democratic Federation that represented leftist feminism against the liberal one. The women’s organizations rivaled each other in the United Nations but also in competition over the hearts of women in decolonizing Asia and Africa where both organizations rapidly expanded during the Cold War. How South Korean women were affiliated to the International Council of Women is part of this story where not only geographical but ideological leanings played a major role.

The West-East division is an interesting issue in the framework of Cold War feminism.  The West and the East do not match with the conventionally held geographical areas here, yet there are multiple assumptions on the belonging of different actors to either side. For example, South Korea’s position in the Cold War located it to the Western camp along with Japan. The organized women’s activism in South Korea took a strong anti-communist stance while all leftist ideas were regarded as dangerous to the state. Being anti-communist was no problem for the International Council of Women that, on the contrary, was busy criticizing the women part of the Women’s International Democratic Federation for being political, or in other words communist.

It was also believed that communism was located in the East and feminist endeavors there were buried under the state’s agenda.  In other words, it was viewed that the West-East division divided also feminisms into free and unpolitical in the West and state-controlled and political in the East. The recent scholarship on the Cold War feminisms has had to work hard to resolve these assumptions and the task is only at the beginning.

The author is a doctoral candidate in at the Centre for East Asian Studies (CEAS) of University of Turku, Finland.