With National Women’s History Month already underway, many across the country are learning about notable female historical figures who have broken barriers and changed the lives of women everywhere. This month, we at KORE are celebrating women by highlighting the stories of some iconic Korean and Korean-American women throughout history.
Queen Seondeok - The First Queen of Silla
Queen Seondeok was the twenty-seventh ruler and first reigning queen of Silla, one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea. Selected by her father King Jinpyeong to be his successor, she was well known as an intelligent and benevolent ruler. During her reign, Queen Seondeok had an astronomical observatory built to help farmers and announced a year of tax exemption for the poor and tax reduction for the middle class, winning the people’s support against male aristocracy. Though she often had to wage war against other nations to prevent the invasion of Korea, she eventually laid the foundation for unifying the Three Kingdoms under Silla through an alliance with the Tang Empire of China.
Lady Jang Geum - The First Female Royal Physician
Lady Jang Geum was the first female Royal Physician in Korean history and served King Jungjong during the Joseon era. King Jungjong thought extremely highly of Lady Jang Geum’s work. After King Jungjong’s wife passed away during childbirth, court officers tried to convince the king to punish Jang Geum, who had assisted with her delivery; but King Jungjong refused because she was such an excellent physician. Her skills were so remarkable that she was permitted to treat the king himself, a privilege that few others were afforded.
Hwang Jini - The Most Beautiful Gisaeng In Joseon
Hwang Jini, also known by her gisaeng name Myeongwol (meaning “bright moon”), is the most well-known gisaeng, or courtesan, of the Joseon era. Hwang Jini was a poet and wrote romantic poetry in Sijo style, which was written in Korean rather than the standard classical Chinese of the time. She was also well regarded for her exceptional beauty, charming quick wit, and extraordinary intellect. Hwang Jini’s achievements were so groundbreaking because women were viewed as the property of men at the time; as a result, few had the opportunity to be educated or create a place in society independent of a man. Notably, Buddhist monk Jijok Seonsa even renounced Buddhism because of her influence. At another point, she attempted to test the nobility and morality of renowned scholar Seo Gyeongdok; after failing, she gained the privilege of formally becoming his student. Her illustrious life made her a legendary figure in modern Korea with many dramas, films, and plays being inspired by her.
Yu Gwansun - A Face of Korean Independence
Yu Gwansun was a Korean independence activist organizer in the March First Independence Movement against the Imperial Japanese colonial rule of Korea. Although she was only seventeen years old, she had already participated in many Korean independence demonstrations and refused to admit guilt despite being severely tortured. While in prison for her role in the March First Movement, Yu famously said, “ Even if my fingernails are torn out, my nose and ears are ripped apart, and my legs and arms are crushed, this physical pain does not compare to the pain of losing my nation… My only remorse is that I have only one life to dedicate to my country.” She later passed away in prison from injuries due to torture and beatings by Japanese officials. Today, Yu is one of the most famous figures in this movement as well as a symbol of Korea's fight for independence.
Susan Ahn Cuddy - First Asian American Woman In the Navy
Susan Ahn Cuddy was the first Asian American woman in the U.S. Navy. Cuddy was born the eldest daughter to Korean independence activist Dosan Ahn Chang Ho and was heavily influenced by her parents’ dedication to the cause. Cuddy initially joined the Navy as a way to help free Korea from the harsh Japanese colonial era rule and eventually became the first woman gunnery officer who trained Navy pilots in air combat tactics. Cuddy was also a trailblazer in other aspects of her life as she defied anti-miscegenation laws of the time period by marrying an Irish-American man. After her military service, Cuddy continued to speak at Navy functions and Korean-American community events. Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors later commemorated her achievements by officially declaring March 10th “Susan Ahn Cuddy Day” in 2015.
Kim Yuna - First Figure Skater To Complete A Career Super Grand Slam
Kim Yuna is a retired South Korean figure skater, who is known for being the first figure skater in history to complete a Career Super Grand Slam, in which she won all three major annual senior-level international competitions (World Championships, Grand Prix Final, and the Four Continents Championships) within a single season in a single discipline. Kim is also known for being the first female skater ever to win every major international competition. In her career, Kim has broken world record scores for skating eleven times under the ISU Judging System since 2007, eight of those records being set by herself. As a result of her numerous accomplishments and popularity, she is frequently referred to as Queen Yuna.
Yi Soyeon - First Korean To Fly In Space
Yi Soyeon is a South Korean astronaut and biotechnologist who became the first Korean citizen and the first person under 30 years old to fly in space. As a child, Yi discovered her love of science after helping her father fix things around the house. In middle school, after applying for the gifted program, she was accepted to the prestigious Gwangju Science High School, and she became the first woman in her family to receive an education past middle school. Later, she became a student at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, known as KAIST and Korea's version of MIT. In 2008, after beating out 36,000 applicants, Yi became South Korea’s first astronaut and the first person under the age of 30 to travel to space.