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“It was a Kind of Women’s Movement”: Professional Social Work, Unwed Mothers, and the Making of a Gendered Care System in South Korea, 1954–1975

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Event Details:

Unwed mothers in South Korea have long faced ostracism and a lack of social support, which often resulted in the adoption of their children. This marginalization is commonly attributed, in both academia and public discourse, to South Korea’s entrenched neo-Confucian values and its resistance to liberal gender ideologies. This talk presents a critical, transpacific history of the “unwed mother problem” (mihonmo munje) in South Korea, particularly focusing on the 1960s and ’70s. During this time, the Christian Adoption Program of Korea (CAPOK), then the sole domestic adoption agency, first observed an increase in unwed pregnancies among urban working women. Steered by American and Korean female social workers trained in US-style liberal social work, CAPOK saw this issue as an opportunity to establish their professional presence in a male-led, emerging field of social work. These workers framed their engagement with unwed mothers as part of a women’s movement to challenge Confucian patriarchy. This talk delves into CAPOK’s strategies in media, counseling, and adoption to dissect the complexities of what I term “care governance,” a concept that illuminates public care in post-liberation South Korea as a politically charged endeavor. The analysis reveals that the social workers’ pursuit of liberal gender ideals and professionalization paradoxically led to the stratification of motherhood. Thus, this research highlights that South Korea’s conservative and normative care system was not solely a product of state-led developmentalism and Confucian ideology, but was also shaped by liberal and transnational influences.

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About the speaker:

Youngeun Koo is the 2023–24 SBS Korean Studies Postdoctoral Fellow in the Social Sciences at Harvard University. Her research focuses on the intersecting history of humanitarianism, (social) science, and care. Her book in progress, tentatively titled Governing Care: Professional Social Work and the Making of the International Adoption Industry in Cold War South Korea, 19541979, traces the formation of the world’s largest and longest-running international adoption program through the lens of professional social work. With an interdisciplinary and transnational background in history, anthropology, and area studies from South Korea, the UK, and Germany, Koo earned her PhD in Korean Studies at the University of Tübingen in 2022. Prior to her appointment at Harvard, she was a Korea Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California, Irvine.