Vale – Lee Hyo-jae – Peace activist and researcher into the Korean “comfort women” from WWII

Vale Lee Hyo Jae
photo credit NY Times

Professor Lee, who died on 4th Oct. 2020 at the age of 95 years, At her death she was a professor emeritus of sociology at the prestigious Ewha Womans University in Seoul, where she inspired generations of young women. She founded the sociology department at Ewha in 1956. She began teaching the school’s first course in women’s studies in 1977, which led to the development of South Korea’s first graduate level women’s studies program.

Ms Lee was a remarkable woman and an inspirational ground breaker who pushed against social convention to fight for justice and equality her whole life.   In the 1940’s, when she was a young woman, her parents brought her to Seoul for an arranged marriage, but Ms. Lee ran away, believing marriage would interfere with her ambitions. She never married.  In 1945 she travelled with her sister, Hyo-suk

to the USA for a college education.  Despite not speaking English they sought assistance to attend the University of Alabama and Ms Lee went onto earn a bachelors degree from Alabama and a Masters degree in Sociology from Colombia University before returning to South Korea in 1957.

She founded the sociology department at Ewha the following year. She began teaching the school’s first course in women’s studies in 1977, which led to the development of South Korea’s first graduate level women’s studies program. Professor Lee was a prominent activist and a founder of women’s studies programs. Many of her students became leading feminists and rose to key positions in liberal governments.

Professor Lee turned down a number of offers to enter politics, preferring her roles as a teacher and an activist. In her later years, she helped found the Miracle Library, a national network of libraries aimed at children and teens in rural areas.

Professor Lee was lauded her bravery for taking up the cause of human rights and democratisation in a dictatorial era.  She was especially passionate about the cause of the “comfort women.” who were taken for use as sex slaves during World War II. As many as 200,000 women from Korea and other Asian countries were conscripted as sex slaves for Japanese troops beginning in the 1930s.  After decades of denial, the Japanese government in 1992 acknowledged its involvement, and South Korea and Japan reached a settlement in 2015 that involved an apology from the Japanese government and $8.3 million to provide care for the surviving women, who numbered around 45 at the time.

Restorative justice for ‘Comfort women’ was only one of many causes taken up by Professor Lee, one of South Korea’s foremost activists on behalf of women’s rights and democracy.  She helped abolish South Korea’s patriarchal naming system, a reform that allowed people to use two surnames to reflect their heritage from both parents, not just the father’s. She helped establish a requirement that half of a party’s candidates running for the National Assembly be women. She pushed for equal pay for equal work.

In 1995 Professor Lee was among a group of 30 female activists, including Gloria Steinem and the Nobel Peace laureates Leymah Gbowee and Mairead Corrigan-Maguire, who received international attention for making a rare trip  across the Demilitarized Zone separating the North and South to promote disarmament and peace between the two countries, which are technically still at war.

After her death, President Moon Jae-in said in a statement, “In the dark times when the stars were brighter, she was one of the most brilliant.” He posthumously awarded her a national medal, an honour she declined in 1996 because the same medal was being given to someone whom she believed to be a government agent planted in the women’s movement.

We thank and honour you for your work, your leadership and for who you were in this world Lee Hyo-jae and hold you in the spirit of the feminist sisterhood.

Our condolences to your family, friends, colleagues and community.

Vale Lee Hyo-jae

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