Illustrations by Ivy Chang
editor's letter
The Other Women
From Competitors to Co-workers

Patriarchy exists and even thrives in Korean American and Korean immigrant churches. Hopefully, this isn’t news to most of us. As for me, I was excited and full of naïve bravado when I entered into ministry in that context. 

I assumed that who I was — a youngish woman in full-time ordained ministry — would be an encouragement for Korean immigrant and Korean American women in my church, that my presence would signal a shift in the religio-cultural patriarchy we sought to dismantle. I was prepared for men to challenge me, but not for women to also be so disturbed by the waves I created simply by existing.

I was prepared for men to challenge me, but not for women to also be so disturbed by the waves I created simply by existing.

I once experienced this when a well-intentioned kwon-sah (female elder) pulled me aside during a regular Wednesday afternoon to admonish me. The kwon-sah had been appointed by her friends to tell me that I needed to “look more respectable” and appear “less everything” as she waved her arms, drawing a wide circle around my body. “That’s what it means to be a pastor,” she said.

“How should I be ‘less’?” I asked. She wanted me to consider cutting my hair shorter, wearing less jewelry, and dressing more subdued to emulate some of the other Korean American women leaders in our church who were loved by the church mothers and grandmothers. 

“A turtleneck and pants would look nice on you,” she said. I unconsciously crossed my arms over myself while itching to retort that this was a ridiculous suggestion in the current heat wave we were experiencing.

The kwon-sah left as quickly as she had arrived, and I was left feeling ambushed and worst of all, lonely. I learned that it was unacceptable for Korean American women ministering in systems of Christo Confucian-centric patriarchy to give off even a hint of being different or subversive, whatever form it took. From other incidents like the one with the kwon-sah, I learned that I was welcome, but not as I was, only if I was willing to course correct and inhabit my body in different ways and with a different spirit. 

I learned that I was welcome, but not as I was, only if I was willing to course correct and inhabit my body in different ways and with a different spirit. 

This realization hurt. Weren’t we supposed to “be in this together”?

The Other Women

The strategy of divide and conquer is alive and well within the patriarchy. The kwon-sah’s attempt to encourage me to civilize my behavior and dress to the dominant cultural expression of womanhood by using the example of others, was an example of patriarchy’s way of pitting different women and their expressions of womanhood and leadership against one another. Solidarity can’t be built if we are competing.

Patriarchy is also dressed up as a religio-cultural phenomenon. Our culturally Confucian inclinations seek confirmation biases as we develop our personal and communal Christian theologies and biblical interpretations, muddying the waters between whose voice — human or divine (or both) — is authoritative. 

Within these patriarchal constructs, Korean American clergy women have had to overcome enormous obstacles to have their calls to ordained ministry recognized and realized in the Korean immigrant and Korean American contexts. And even if they succeed, they may not find total acceptance or visibility in the places where they choose to minister. 

Within these patriarchal constructs, Korean American clergy women have had to overcome enormous obstacles to have their calls to ordained ministry recognized and realized in the Korean immigrant and Korean American contexts.

As a Korean American clergywoman, I have found that my cultural context, my body, my voice, and my call to ordained ministry are often an offense to those whom I would gladly claim but who would hesitate to claim me in return. 

The easy way to explain away patriarchy is to say that it is solely the responsibility of men in our community — that men are the most culpable of instigating and perpetuating the painful sexism Korean American clergywomen are confronted with on a regular, astounding basis. This may be partially true but it is not that simple. 

Patriarchy is not a binary of victim and oppressor; it isn’t only the problem of men, though men do their share of oppression and are not excused from their share in the labor of dismantling patriarchy. But women also internalize and impose patriarchy on one another as a result of our attempt to navigate oppressive systems of erasure and survival. 

Women also internalize and impose patriarchy on one another as a result of our attempt to navigate oppressive systems of erasure and survival. 

Together, we are caught up in oppressive structures and together, we have to work self-reflexively and communally to understand its impact on our lives and to one another.

• • • 

I mistakenly assumed that my greatest allies would be the women around me — that we would fight patriarchy together. But the most painful work before me was not the exercise of convincing men that I belonged there, though I did plenty of that every day. Instead, it was the labor of convincing other women that my embodiment of my call was not the dismantling and erasure of their carefully patterned ways of navigating patriarchy. 

The smallest things were wedge issues between us, particularly between the first-generation women and myself. I heard things like, “We knew she was too young to have so much responsibility” and “She needs to hurry up and find a husband. It’s not good for a young woman to be unmarried for so long” to “What kind of example is she setting for our girls and boys when she acts so loud and stomps around like that?” The worst was, “She smiles too big and laughs too loud. All those teeth! It’s not decent.”

I was tired of fighting other women around me, trying hard to convince them to accept me. I didn’t want my fellow women to disown me, especially within a system that sought to make me and my call invisible. As I continually found myself domesticating my voice, my body, and my theology to fit in, I began to grasp that patriarchy is the most painful when we internalize it and allow it to pit ourselves against one another instead of allying against the systems that work to keep us all down. 

Patriarchy is the most painful when we internalize it and allow it to pit ourselves against one another instead of allying against the systems that work to keep us all down. 

After a while of digging myself out of the rabbit hole of self-pity and anger, I started to listen, to really try and hear the message behind the negative reactions to who and how I was in the world. 

• • •

My breakthrough moment was the first time I attempted to drive the 18-passenger van (a necessity for all Korean American congregations). Just seeing me in the driver’s seat of that giant vehicle startled some of the women in our congregation. I was going to drive my youth group to their service project, and I remember Mrs. Lee on tiptoe, hoisting her upper body with sheer strength of will through the driver’s side window and grabbing the keys out of the ignition. 

“I can ask my husband if he will drive you and the youth group,” she said. “If you start driving the van, then we might have to start driving the van, too!” 

"If you start driving the van, then we might have to start driving the van, too!"

That gave me pause. Her alarm was not unfounded. Mrs. Lee was always at the church. She also had three boys and worked part-time. It was my personal belief that she lived 40-hour days. How else did she do everything that she did on a daily basis? 

By not wanting to drive the van, Mrs. Lee wasn’t trying to shirk communal devotion; she was trying to survive what she was already committed to doing: the constant cleaning, cooking, educating, interceding, fundraising, and earning that she and others did on behalf of the congregation. 

Indeed, if I started driving the 18-passenger van, a duty that was usually delegated to men, would she have to add that to her long list of congregational activity, too? 

The Other Women

Mrs. Lee and her peers had cultivated a sophisticated, effective way of navigating patriarchy in their congregational lives. They knew how to use their silence, participation, and labor in ways that subverted the patriarchal rules without outrightly disagreeing with them and causing chaos. 

When I came on the scene, I disrupted a well-working strategy already in play. Everything that I did to “dismantle and resist the patriarchy” — all the traditionally male roles and duties I happily undertook without a thought — were seen as involuntarily also committing the women around me to those additional duties, without the promise of relief from their existing ones. They were swept along in my solitary march toward shattering the stained glass ceiling. 

The women resisted my presence and role not because they opposed who I was, but because I embodied a disregard for the communal ways in which the women in the congregation needed to do the work of subverting the patriarchy together. 

The women resisted my presence and role not because they opposed who I was, but because I embodied a disregard for the communal ways in which the women in the congregation needed to do the work of subverting the patriarchy together. 

After that moment, every time I encountered another woman’s way of asking “What are you doing?”, I remembered my mother. I remembered her raising me to be a force, but not to the detriment of the people around me. 

• • •

As a woman of the immigrant generation who challenged white supremacist hostility in grocery stores and parking lots while her children looked on, my mother taught me courage, tenacity, and love. She taught me to take up space, move with intention and power, and speak boldly without allowing my words to be domesticated to the powers of co-option; but she also taught me to live into these qualities in inclusionary ways, and remember that everything, every move, was a conversation in community. 

My mother was my fiercest interrogator when I was 16 and discerning my call to ordained ministry. As we worked out the implications of my call in conversation, we grew to understand each other’s concerns, fears, and hopes. In time, she became my foremost advocate.  

Today, my mother still teaches me that community is not symbolic; it is real and lived day to day, constantly negotiated and co-created.

My mother still teaches me today that community is not symbolic; it is real and lived day to day, constantly negotiated and co-created.

In this new space of congregational life, I had forgotten the lessons my mother had taught me.  If I hungered for that communal work of critique and advocacy that I had with my mother, it was because I was not inviting it in ways that lived into the mutuality I was seeking. 

I eventually slowed down, to be teachable in my advocacy work and work for the solidarity I initially felt entitled to receive. I needed to understand how my living boldly into my feminism — a brand that I automatically assumed other women would agree with — was affecting the women I lived with in community. 

I learned: to wait and hear them when they said that who and how I was disrupted all the ways they had learned to co-exist in a patriarchal system; to live into community slowly toward steady changes, at a glacial pace at times, but necessarily so for sustainability’s sake; to culturally code-switch and stop living like a bull in a china shop, and instead, navigate patriarchy in the ways that the women in my congregation were modeling for me while remaining in conversation with them about what I was doing. 

Mrs. Lee never did have to drive that 18-passenger van and I never did wear a turtleneck with pants in the heat of summer. But we learned to challenge but not erase one another as co-interrogators and supporters toward deep impact, healthy change, and liberation. We didn’t need to resort to mutual erasure in order to survive. 

We didn’t need to resort to mutual erasure in order to survive. 

I learned to see and hear what was really happening without jumping immediately to offense, despair, or anger. Intentionally entering into communal conversations and investing in a life that is co-created has been and is a good call indeed. 

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