Coming across a recording of the mocking and hostile environment for female medical students in the late 19th and early 20th century in David Oshinsky’s Bellevue turned my mind towards a country where at least nominally women were allowed to officially serve as doctors far earlier, Korea or as it was known then Joseon.
From 1406 forward a class of female doctors referred to as uinyeo was established in Joseon to circumvent social convention which precluded male doctors from treating female patients. The roots of this policy were very noble as a high-ranking government official convinced the king that while even male slaves could find appropriate care even high-ranking women could not. Initially since system served its intended purpose with uinyeo, being divided into two groups the first of which served within the palace and the second, serving in the state run clinics which served the poor. What motivated this piece was the diminution of their status by king Yeongsangun, a famed debauch. This process started slowly with the utilization of the female doctors as inspectors of wedding gifts but slowly their continued presence at festive events lead them to also develop the skills of entertainers. While future regime tried to reverse this trend, it proved to be impossible and the uineyeos’ reputation for entertainment became their predominant one. Further undermining their status was the fact that due to their lowborn origin, uinyeo did not gain the same social status as male doctors and barely retained their existence as a group of the lowest class of society.
While it cannot be traced wholly to their relatively humble origin, the field of female physicians continues to have to struggle for status in in Korean society well into the modern day. The drama Sky Castle for example, features a central storyline which a teenager strives to prove to her grandmother that she can be the third generation doctor in her family after her mother is criticized for her inability to have a son who can do so. Shifting away from fiction a recent report conducted in the Korean medical system found that 38.2 percent, or 449 respondents, said women suffer disadvantages in landing jobs at hospitals and an even larger percentage spoke to gender discrimination in promotion.
While of course women have made great strides both in Korea and the United States in recent years, it should be clear that time alone is insufficient to guarantee parity.