Gender and Abortive Capitalist Social Transformation: Semi-Proletarianization of South Korean Women

By Chang, Kyung-Sup | International Journal of Comparative Sociology, June 1995 | Go to article overview

Gender and Abortive Capitalist Social Transformation: Semi-Proletarianization of South Korean Women


Chang, Kyung-Sup, International Journal of Comparative Sociology


The life cycle of a traditional Korean woman was characterized by her social and economic dependence on her father before marriage, on her husband upon marriage, and on her eldest son in her old age. However, under the rapid capitalist development in South Korea in recent decades, the social relations that Korean women form have expanded beyond the patrilineal family into the market and other public spheres. South Korean women have entered the class structure as major economic actors, performing various economic functions needed for the capitalist transformation of South Korean society.

This transition, however, did not significantly change their disadvantaged power relations with men. As in other societies that have experienced capitalist transformation, South Korean women continue to be the "first oppressed class" (Engels, 1942) in the capitalist social division of labor. Moreover, paternalistic labor relations, which are often praised as an important element of the productive capitalist economies in East Asia, have been selectively applied to mostly male, permanent workers. The typical image of working women has been "permanent casuals" (Fuentes and Ehrenreich, 1983) who are susceptible to unconditional exploitation due to their unstable and unorganized nature of employment. Korean women's exodus from the patriarchal family seems to have resulted in a society-wide gender stratification under which their feminine characteristics are rationalized as the basis for social and economic discrimination.

As Boserup would have predicted, economic modernization has expanded South Korean women's social relations while at the same time enforcing a new system of gender stratification in the economy (cf. Boserup, 1970). The transformation of class positions amid capitalist development has significantly differed for South Korean men and women.(1) More specifically, South Korean women's insertion into the capitalist economy has ironically led to a massive expansion and preservation of their partially transformed social relations outside the formal corporate industrial sectors. In this vein, the visible efficacy of the proletarian class in its recent confrontations with the authoritarian developmentalist regime and its business allies by no means alludes to a fundamental improvement of South Korean women's class positions. An overwhelming majority of South Korean women have been transformed into, and continue to be maintained as, semi-proletariat whereas a rapidly increasing number of South Korean men appear to realize the potential of effective proletarian class action.

The purpose of this paper is two-fold: first, to provide some formal evidence on the systematic differences in South Korean men's and women's social transformation for 1960-80, a period when the country converted herself from a low-income economy to a solid middle-income one through rapid economic growth; second, to discuss the causes, characteristics, and transformative prospects for South Korean women's semi-proletarianized status in the overall context of capitalist economic development. By emphasizing the fundamentally different but structurally interlinked processes of South Korean men's and women's class restructuring, this paper is intended to present a complementary, or somewhat critical perspective to the outlook that proletarianization most aptly demarcates the changing social relations of South Korean labor (e.g. Koo, 1990; Deyo, 1989a).

South Korean Women: Proletarianization or Semi-Proletarianization

South Korea has been considered one of the few exceptional cases of successful economic development in the Third World. In particular, along with her neighboring East Asian countries such as Japan and Taiwan, the country is often said to have experienced a "growth with equity" (Fei, Ranis and Kuo; 1979) model of development. Such customary indicators of development as GNP growth rate, GINI coefficient, and sectoral composition of production have undoubtedly illustrated the South Korean success story. …

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