Lee Tai-young

Korea's first female lawyer and first female judge who founded of the country's first legal aide center and fought for women's rights all through her career
  • Since 1956 she has operated a private non-profit Legal Aid Center providing free legal counsel in particular to illiterates and poor women.
  • In 1963 her years of persistent persuasion and of channeling the concern of women’s groups resulted in the enactment of the Law Concerning Judgments of Family Affairs and the establishment of the implementing Seoul Family Court.
  • The RMAF board of trustees recognizes her effective service to the cause of equal juridical rights for the liberation of Korean women.

Subservience by women was their accepted lot in life throughout most of Korean history. The doctrine of Three Obediences—to father in childhood, to the husband after marriage, and to sons in old age—prevailed to the end of the Yi Dynasty, which lasted from 1392 to 1910. This traditional social bondage was only slightly modified during the ensuing 35 years of Japanese colonial administration.

The faith taught by Christian missionaries, allowed into the Hermit Kingdom late in the 19th century, and the schools they founded challenged old Confucian mores and the authoritarian ordering of life. From this crucible came women who had learned to work together in schools and churches and who had joined prominently in the Korean Independence Declaration Movement of March 1919. Although the Movement was suppressed by the Japanese military, the ferment continued. With Allied liberation in August 1945, hitherto inhibited talents of Korean women blossomed.

Despite the Korean War that devastated much of their country, women have continued to mobilize public support for modernizing their society. The Constitution reflects their ideas and determination. No longer are girls given during childhood in arranged marriages. Widows now can remarry. Property rights, divorce, access to schooling and entry into the professions all have come with a rush, mostly in the last three decades.

Dr. TAI-YOUNG LEE—Mrs. Y. H. CHYUNG in private life—is both a product of this formative period for Korea’s women and one of its architects. Born in 1914 into a family stirred by liberalizing influences, she was able to attend the new schools for girls, graduating in home economics from Ehwa Womans University in 1936. During the five years her husband was imprisoned by the Japanese, she supported their family as a seamstress and a teacher. Liberation afforded her the opportunity to study law at Seoul National University where she earned her degree at the age of 38 while raising four children; she later earned her doctorate there.

The first woman in Korea to become a lawyer and a judge, Dr. LEE naturally came to lead in achieving women’s rights. Since 1956 she has operated a private non-profit Legal Aid Center providing free legal counsel in particular to illiterates and poor women. In 1963 her years of persistent persuasion and of channeling the concern of women’s groups, resulted in enactment of the Law Concerning Judgments of Family Affairs and establishment of the implementing Seoul Family Court. For residents of the capital city and environs, the Court seeks, through mediation, rational solutions to complaints before passing any judgments.

From her school days, amidst all the vicissitudes that have beset her land, Dr. LEE has sustained an unwaveringly purposeful commitment to enabling Korean women to become full citizens. While championing their freedom from ancient thralldom and pursuing her profession, she has remained a conscientious wife and mother and inspiration for the womanhood of her country.

In electing TAI YOUNG LEE to receive the 1975 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership, the Board of Trustees recognizes her effective service to the cause of equal juridical rights for the liberation of Korean women.

I consider it a great honor to receive the Magsaysay Award as the late President Magsaysay was so highly respected by leaders and citizens of Asia and the whole free world.

I want to share this honor with my family and with all the women of my country, Korea. Korean women, who were bound as slaves for so long by the old traditional system and by custom, since the liberation of Korea 30 years ago have shown such great effort and ability in breaking out of this old pattern that their progress in raising the status of women must be highly regarded.

I am only one of these women, but I have tried to work with the other women, discuss with them our problems, study and do research with them and run errands for them. So, I feel that this Award should really go to all of the women in Korea and that I, as their representative, have come to receive it for them.

When the news came that I had received the Award, the happy voices of my office colleagues cried out in my small, crowded office, “The rain is coming from way beyond in the Philippine sky.” This means that we have hope; our Korean proverb for sustaining hopes goes, “You can’t tell which cloud will bring rain.”

Since its foundation 20 years ago, our Legal Aid Center has been undergoing a severe drought. While we have every day had a flood of women coming to us for help, we have been short of means, and my limited ability and the lack of understanding in our society about legal aid has made it twice as difficult to carry on our work. In this kind of drought our office colleagues have been encouraging each other with this proverb. Truly, it is a miracle that I have received such sweet rain from such a far off sky.

A poet has sent me a poem in which it says, “Some people have eyes to see.” These are very impressive words. The late President Magsaysay was always looking for the people who served the poor, the unhappy, and the weak who were suffering from oppression. The Philippine people who have inherited such a heart, mind, and spirit have eyes of wisdom to find even such a person like me. But I didn’t realize that the Philippine people had such eyes of wisdom to find our humble work. We never even realized you were watching us.

Coming from a Confucian society which teaches that man is always first, I was the first woman to become a lawyer in Korean history. But I have recognized my call and I have left my professional practice to start this Legal Aid Center to serve Korean women, although this has been somewhat like emptying the Han River by dipping the water out with a clam shell. It seems almost futile at times.

The reason is that the law discriminated against women so that it was of little assistance in our efforts to help them. Therefore, I started to work for the change of laws and the repeal of some. My effort to set up a Family Court and to revise the Family Law was inevitable and natural.

This year is Women’s Year. In order to assist more women I have been busy trying to build a Legal Aid Center Hall. This happy news came to me as a great surprise to give me encouragement and the responsibility for more sincere service for the welfare of Korean women.

At the time mankind was created, man and woman lived together happily in the Garden of Eden. But then the relationship was broken and the seeds of disharmony were spread. The idea that man has a right always to have the higher position while it is woman’s duty to occupy the lower one sets them off in opposition. Because of this function we have lost our peace and the advance of our human society has been retarded. Even so our women’s movement is not to create a new history but to reform the distorted view of history and through this work we hope to restore harmony to the universe.

I don’t think we need to name this the Women’s Year; I am sure we can build a society where we no longer have to set up a Women’s Year, still, the history remains. Though the progress is there, still we have to knock so the door of history can be opened. Instead of waiting for the gradual change, we must hurry and knock and open it. I must hurry so I will run to do it.

I think any man’s ultimate wish must be peace and happiness, but this starts with equality of the sexes. Order must find the right place and it should start in the home, then maybe we can get back to the Garden of Eden.

Normalization of the relationship between human beings is not done only by men or by the more powerful, but by all of mankind. The conscientiousness of all of mankind and their effort and wisdom should be mobilized altogether at this time. For this reason I think that receiving the Magsaysay Award now is timely, and accepting the Magsaysay spirit and philosophy will enable me to put it into practice for further service. I will stand by the oppressed and give my whole life for this cause as recompense for this Award.

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