South Korea will hold presidential elections tomorrow. For the first time in the history of its democracy, it is possible that the country will elect a woman. If Park Guen-hye, the frontrunner for the presidency, wins as expected, it would be the first time in a millennia that a woman has helmed the country, which for all its modernity, remains deeply paternalistic. According to the World Economic Forum, South Korea is 108th out of 135 countries in terms of gender equality despite its enormous wealth.
Park is a leader of the conservative Saenuri Party (formerly known as the Grand National Party) and a daughter of the Republic of Korea’s ugly political past: her father, Park Chung-hee, took over the country in 1961 in a military coup, controlling the country for 18 years. Depending on your point of view, he was either a dictator and Japanese loyalist or a hero who modernized Korea, rescuing it from grinding poverty and the ravages of civil war.
Park has apologized for her father’s authoritarian rule, though most pundits agree that his legacy will have little bearing on the election. Rather, her mother’s popularity as first lady may actually have more influence on Park, who, despite being the first female political heavyweight to contend for the presidency, has some serious “likeability issues” among both men and women. (Sound familiar?)
Although she is one of the most powerful women in Korea, Park has never been especially friendly towards women. A study by the Center for Korean Women and Politics determined that her opponent, Moon Jae-in, has better policies for gender equality than she does. Little in her platform, which includes extending day care hours until 10 p.m. for working mothers, addresses core issues of pay inequality in South Korea.
These are all serious political issues. Yet of the biggest criticisms lobbed her way, the one that sticks is the fact that she has never gotten married or had children. Moon’s spokesperson put it succinctly:
Candidate Park has no femininity. She has never lived a life agonizing over childbirth, childcare, education and grocery prices.
Because obviously that prepares one for a life of public service. Park may not be the best advocate for gender equality for the Republic of Korea, which desperately needs one. But her candidacy has nothing to do with her femininity. Just because you don’t fret over the price of milk doesn’t mean you’re not a woman — or woman enough to be president.