Since her childhood, Yoon has had two main goals in her life: to change the weary life style of Korean women and to provide support for the development of South Korea.
Yoon’s interest in women’s rights sprouted from an observation she made from the lives of her parents. After finishing their farm work, her father would go to town or relax while her mother would continue doing household chores such as doing the laundry, ironing and sewing. In addition, Yoon was extremely shocked when she found out that daughters were not recorded in the family tree.
“When I asked my parents why women live and are treated this way, they would answer that it is just so,” Yoon said.
In the case of the development of Korea, a desire to aid the country during the Japanese colonial era flared within Yoon.
“I wondered why we could not speak Korean at school and when I learned that it was because our country was taken away due to its lack of strength, I became determined to be of use to Korea when I grow up,” she said.
Yoon went through the Japanese colonialism during elementary school, the liberation period in middle school and the Korean War in her university years. This made her feel that she had not studied enough.
“I had started teaching students as a professor and wanted to become a proud, respectable educator,” Yoon said. “If I were to teach properly, I thought I should first study properly in a developed country.”
This is why Yoon began her life of studying abroad in the United States. In 1962, she received a Master’s course in Political Science in the University of Louisville. She continued her studies in Yale University in Law from 1963 to 1964, but had to cut short her education due to health problems.
After five years, however, Yoon returned to the United States to complete her unfinished studies and received a Master’s course in Law and Doctor of Juridical Science in Northwestern University.
Although the United States received many foreign students at that time, it was rare for foreign students to study law due to the differences in the legal systems between the countries. The teaching methods also varied as classes in the United States proceeded through debates and asking questions.
“What I liked about studying in America was that students could learn to solve problems through induction,” Yoon said. “We could cultivate our ability of application.”
Throughout her studies, Yoon mainly studied constitutional law and therefore became the first Korean female scholar of constitutions.
Fighting for women’s rights
Yoon achieved numerous feats regarding women’s rights, following her life goal. During the 8th constitutional amendment in 1980, Yoon was asked by women’s organizations to write a draft for a clause that states gender equality.
“I was thrilled when they approached me with this opportunity,” Yoon said. “Family law at the time was very patriarchal and male-centered, claiming that men and women are born different and therefore should receive reasonable discrimination. At that moment, I finally had the chance to fix it.”
The clause Yoon and the women’s organizations submitted was passed and lives on to this day as article 36 of the Constitution: Marriage and family life must be established and maintained based on the dignity of individuals and the equality of both sexes, and the nation guarantees this.
“The passing of the article was truly an historical event,” Yoon said. “A number of discriminative clauses became abolished since.”
Moreover, Yoon also triggered the start of women’s studies. At first, there were questions about whether women’s problems could be an academically acceptable study. Then after holding meetings once a month to discuss and research issues related to women, it was proven that the answer was a yes. In Ewha, the subject of women’s studies was selected as a liberal arts course in 1977, and was established as a department in 1981.
In 1998, when the Presidential Commission on Women’s Affairs was installed, Yoon was appointed as the chairperson. As chairperson, she worked on the law on the prohibition and aid of sexual discrimination, endeavoring to protect women’s rights in communal life.
During the course of trying hard to increase women’s rights, Yoon faced many opposing forces. While motioning for the amendment of the family law in the 1960s and 70s, conservative males would accuse that women who argue for the revision are not Korean women and should be thrown in the ocean, wrapped in a basket. Their logic was that as the family law reflects Korea’s traditional values and fine customs, those who disagree do not understand them and therefore are not Koreans.
“In society, there are phases when ideas change,” Yoon said. “At these phases, there is bound to be persecution and criticism toward new, advanced opinions. When you want to make important changes, you must be prepared to encounter reproaches and make sacrifices.”
Women’s rights situation in Korea has changed quite a bit throughout the years. Still, Yoon thinks the problematic situation is not yet fundamentally solved.
“Though people’s awareness of women problems has changed a lot, there is still lack of fulfillment in reality,” she said. “People’s minds may be a little different, but their hearts remain the same.”
Working for development of Ewha
Yoon has a long and historical relationship with Ewha. After graduating from Ewha in 1955, she continued her ties with the school as a professor, and then was even voted as its first elected president. Before, universities simply appointed presidents, but this method came to be considered inappropriate with the development of democracy in Korea.
For its first presidential election, Ewha chose to utilize the direct election system and follow the method used in the Conclave; no candidates, no campaigns and no pledges. After all the professors had a chance to vote, in 1990, Yoon was elected as president of Ewha.
“I had not even thought about being president, but as I had not campaigned for the position, I did not feel much pressure and was at ease during my term,” Yoon said. “I was very thankful and honored that I became president of Ewha through such a wonderful method.”
After Yoon’s term, the subsequent presidential election method changed to indirect election system, making Yoon the first and only Ewha president to be voted directly so far.
Though she had little trouble with professors, conflicts with students were inevitable as students and professors have varying perspectives.
“Between students and professors, there are differences in experience and values,” Yoon said. “In times of discord, I tried to understand students and communicate with them in order to solve matters peacefully.”
Despite the fact that she had not made any pledges before becoming president, Yoon had a clear vision to guide Ewha.
“Ten years after 1990 would be the 21st century,” Yoon said. “I predicted that Ewha would have to prepare itself in regard to the upcoming changes in the next century, and educate females to obtain specialty in accordance with the trend.”
Twenty-three years ago, she had thought that the 21st century would be a turning point in the history of civilization, bringing on globalization and internationalization, and stressing the importance of information and advanced technology. She wanted Ewha to internalize these qualities up to a global standard.
As Yoon was interested in fostering 21st-century-modern women, she was also determined to raise outstanding female individuals in the field of science. This motivated her to establish the College of Engineering in Ewha, thus making it the first women’s university in the world to have a College of Engineering.
“Ewha has always been ahead, and I wanted to show the world that women can study engineering as well,” Yoon said. “In addition, I thought Ewha should equip all colleges as a university.”
Organizing the College of Engineering had been a challenging process, especially more so since there were no previous examples. Furthermore, many doubted if enough female students would wish to attend a College of Engineering, or opposed building the college due to financial issues. Yoon overcame these obstacles and succeeded.
“I am thankful that the professors and students of College of Engineering are doing so well,” Yoon said. “It makes me feel that it was worth taking chances and diving into the adventure.”
According to Yoon, the 21st century vision she had proposed is continuously being realized in Ewha today. The field of women’s studies, for example, has been successfully developed and is unrivaled internationally. In addition, recently Ewha concluded a contract of cooperation of academy and business with Solvay, a Belgian multinational cooperation, specializing in the special chemistry sector.
Although Ewha has been developing such accomplishments, Yoon thinks it is now time to renew Ewha’s direction and tasks.
“Things are changing very rapidly these days, but we should always be one step ahead,” Yoon said. “The school should resharpen its vision and think of ways to appeal its special values, advantages and charm.”
Currently, Yoon is mainly focused on her juniors from Ewha. She shares opinions and helps them out when her help is needed. Yoon urges students to use this period to set up a base for their future, and to always be devoted in what they do.
“The period of being students in a university is the most important time in one’s life because that is when students should raise their strength to later fulfill their dreams and aims,” Yoon said. “Also, Ewha students should consider themselves as international personnel and members of the world. And they should devote themselves while doing what they do because seeking only their own personal desire would not be an act of a true Ewha student.”