Mommy money

A famed figure of motherhood will be the first woman to appear on South Korean currency.


Tracy Clark-Flory
November 6, 2007 12:00AM (UTC)

For the first time, South Korea has chosen to feature a woman on its banknotes, as a way of promoting gender equality. Why, then, are women's rights groups protesting, saying the decision promotes sexism?

The central bank chose Shin Saimdang, a much-esteemed figure of motherhood, for the 100,000-won note. Saimdang is the woman who diapered, burped and bathed the famous Confucian scholar Yi I; the government describes Saimdang as "the best example of motherhood in Korean history." Although she was also a noted and talented artist in her own right, she is most often credited with fostering Yi I's unusual abilities early on, allowing him to reach his full potential. South Korea's central bank explained the choice as a move "to promote gender equality and women's participation in society."

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But some activists say they're promoting women's participation in society ... through their children. They don't deny that she was an impressive woman, but question whether Saimdang -- as opposed to a Korean woman who managed to gain power and influence outside of the home -- is the best choice for promoting gender equality. "Although women nowadays are highly capable and educated, the idea of 'wise mother and good wife' holds them down," Kwon Hee-jung, secretary general of an activist group protesting the decision, told Reuters.

This is a lose-lose argument, really. It's hard to argue that featuring a famed figure of motherhood on a banknote is sexist and insulting without seeming to sneer at mothers' role in society. It's also hard to celebrate this historic tribute to motherly influence without diminishing other women's climbs to public power in male-dominated South Korea.

But let's not forget the fact that, come 2009, there will be a woman featured on South Korean currency for the first time ever. Cue: party horns, confetti, silly string.

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Tracy Clark-Flory

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