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The real work is just beginning

June 17,2019
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Kathleen Stephens
The author was the U.S. Ambassador to Korea from 2008 to 2011. She is the president of the Korea Economic Institute of America located in Washington.

June is a month full of anniversaries. U.S. President Donald Trump has joined European wartime allies to mark the 75th anniversary of the Normandy landing, with splendid photos of a final salute to the last remaining survivors of those battles, incongruously but understandably accompanied by worried pessimism about the future of NATO and the reliability of the United States.

This month marks 69 years since the Korean Peninsula was plunged into catastrophic conflict as North Korean troops launched a surprise attack southward.

It’s been 30 years since the bloody put-down of student protesters in China’s Tiananmen Square, and 32 years since the June democratization movement in Korea culminated in a vastly superior outcome.

I’m old enough to have vivid personal memories of these more recent dates. In June 1989, I was in Seoul at the end of six continuous years in Korea and an earlier two years in China, about to return to the United States where I would be studying at Harvard University as the Berlin Wall fell before the year’s end.

I was — and still am — trying to process the experiences of those years. I knew I had witnessed extraordinary transformations in both China and South Korea — economic, social and political — filled with hopes fulfilled and hopes crushed — that would have lasting significance for the world. And I knew there was still a lot of work to do.

Yet there’s another anniversary this month and it’s of equal importance: 100 years ago, on June 4, 1919, the U.S. Senate voted to pass the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing women the right to vote. It still had to be ratified by the states, which took another 14 months, but women — at least white women — were finally able to vote for the first time throughout the United States in the 1920 general election.

American women’s right to vote was not achieved without struggle. In the years leading up to the 1919 vote, women silently holding banners in front of the White House were ignored by President Woodrow Wilson, and were some arrested and sent to prison. They — and their demand for suffrage — were deemed “pathological,” “dangerous,” and, worst of all, “unwomanly.”

I was lucky to know both my grandmothers, both born at the end of the 19th century, both who lived to see the last decade of the 20th century. I try to imagine how these two intelligent, ambitious women endured growing up knowing they were not considered full Americans.

But they persisted and participated; they made their own opportunities rather than waiting for them to be given. And they told their children — daughters and sons alike — that any future is possible.

A friend of mine who applied to the Foreign Service in the ’60s, a decade before I did, told me when she had her oral examination after passing all the other entry requirements she was asked by each (male) examiner, “Do you know you will have to resign if you marry?” To their dismay she said yes, she knew that. She went on some years later to marry a fellow Foreign Service officer (who never got that question!); they challenged the rule; they both became ambassadors.

I was thinking about all this when I met with a group of female journalists from Korea on June 4 in Washington. My briefing paper told me they were visiting the United States on a State Department program, titled “Increasing National Competitiveness through Gender Equality,” which would show them how the United States encourages women in politics and business.

I welcome these programs, but I wondered: isn’t gender equality a desirable goal irrespective of “national competitiveness?” And perhaps when it comes to encouraging women, the United States, which notably among industrialized democracies does little to support child care and paid parental leave, and where women have not broken the biggest glass ceilings of business and politics, might approach this topic with some humility.

In that obstreperous state of mind, I met the Korean group, representing a range of newspapers and broadcasters in Korea. I found myself thinking about the undertold story of women in Korea’s economic and political rise, from the tough women of the Korean market and small shops we’d now call “entrepreneurs” who struggled to raise and educate their children in the post-Korean War years, to the pioneers like lawyer Lee Tai-young whom I used to visit at her Family Law Clinic in Yeouido, western Seoul, helping women who had no legal rights.

I thought about how much had changed in Korea since my first days there as a young woman, and in the United States since my grandmothers’ time and in my own generation.

It’s an encouraging story. There are more Korean women correspondents in Washington than ever before. Today, the bright new Korean diplomats I meet are as likely to be female as male.

In the United States, more women than ever before ran for Congress and gubernatorial positions last year. Six women are running for president.

Yet I still find myself at conferences in Washington and Seoul filled with “manels,” exclusively male speakers on topics for which there is no shortage of gifted female experts, just still a certain blind spot about what constitutes an authoritative voice.

Women, whether Korean or American, journalist or politician, face double standards, and insidious and conflicting judgments on their looks, likeability, expertise, credentials, and more. Ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution languishes decades after its introduction.

Still, we persist. It matters not just for women, and not just in the United States or Korea, but for everyone. I celebrate all that has been achieved, but there is much still to do.