Renegotiating the Gender Contract
According to a recent article in the New York Times, the single mothers of South Korea are beginning to mount a battle to reclaim not only their rights but also their identities. The social stigma surrounding unwed motherhood in South Korea is particularly fierce. According to the report, in 2007, 1.6 percent of babies were born out of wedlock and of those 1.6 percent 70 percent are given up for adoption. However, nearly 96 percent of the single women who are impregnated chose to have an abortion. The percentage of women who chose to either terminate the pregnancy or give their child up for adoption is startlingly high in comparison to United States figures where in the same year 40 percent of babies born were born into single parent homes and only 1 percent of these were given up for adoption. Yet these figures remain high in the face of South Korea’s declining birthrate as unwed mothers risk a life of “poverty and disgrace” in Korean culture. One observer explains, “Once you become an unwed mom, you’re branded as immoral and a failure. People treat you as if you had committed a crime. You fall to the bottom rung of society.” Women are often cut out of their families completely because of the shame it is supposed that they have brought on their house. Even the South Korean government’s recent attempts at social programs to help women are stymied by the fear of coming forward and subsequently facing eviction and job loss. In the face of such adversity, single mothers in South Korea are approaching their breaking point claiming, “Culture is not an excuse to abuse human rights.” A movement is growing in the region, spawning groups such as the “Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network,” and “Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea.”
It is helpful to view the challenges facing unwed mothers through the lens of the gender contract as does Amalia Sa’ar in the article, “Low-Income ‘Single Moms’ in Israel: Redefining the Gender Contract.” In this way the focus becomes less the overt denial of rights and more how a society is able to coerce women out of the right to raise their own children. Amalia Sa’ar explains that while in Israel one-parent motherhood is a much more ambivalent social identity, the fact remains that as a result of the normative gender contract in which the male is viewed as the “bread-winner” and the female the “caretaker,” women limit their ambitions to those compatible with family demands and accordingly have low expectations of employer, state and other support. Sa’ar found that, in terms of empowerment, for single mothers in Israel being embedded in kin networks is often more important than the presence of the father in the household. Historically, single motherhood as been examined as a the, “collapse of an imagined good or social order.” Particularly focusing on low-income unwed mothers, Sa’ar found the women were often accustomed to the instability of life and the necessity to become a “bread-winner” themselves prior to becoming single mothers and accordingly the aura of failed femininity emanates more from social class than marital status.
Despite the social and economic pressures of single motherhood Sa’ar argues that women still search for intimacy as part of their “normative feminine subjectivity” rather than for the support, which they, in Israel, are able to attain through kin networks. She attributes this quest for the ideal type relationship as a larger desire for a perceived middle class status. Sa’ar explains, “The process of adopting and crystallizing the social identity of ‘one-parent mothers’ entails a dialectic engagement, whereby low-income women retain but reformulate the gender contract as a dominant schema of their feminine subjectivity.” Empowerment through subjectivity becomes the delicate course single mothers attempt to chart and as deeply ingrained as the gender contract is it is also an increasingly versatile, open to cultural adaptation in which single motherhood becomes a symbolic motherhood. Single mothers, particularly those with low-incomes, are on the same journey in various parts of the world. They are attempting to reclaim their rights by reclaiming their gender identity and therefore their place in society. It may still be a long journey for the women in South Korea as they tackle the persistent nature of patriarchy but if a lesson is to be taken from Sa’ar’s it is to be unwavering in their confidence in their own legitimacy in society and recognition of their rights will follow.