The March 1st Independence Movement Led By Teenage Girls

The Historical Value and Heritage of the March 1st Movement (1)

Cho-Lee Yeoul 2021-02-28

Editor’s note: The “March 1st Movement” and “martyr Yu Gwan-sun” are always mentioned together. Yu Gwan-sun was arrested at the age of 16 on charges of leading the Manse Demonstrations and died after extremely severe torture at the age of 17. She became a symbol—the “Nation’s Sister” and the “Flower of the Independence Movement”. However, ironically, not many Korean people remember the March 1st Movement as “the Independence Movement that was led by teenage girls.” Yet a foreign journalist of the time wrote, “In the March 1st Movement, the role of women, and especially of young women, was remarkable.” To commemorate the March 1st holiday this year, this series looks at women’s roles in the March 1st Movement and examines its meaning as a part of women’s history.


▲ A memorial statue of the March 1st Manse Demonstration in Gwangju. It is in Speer Girls’ Middle and High School  ©The Independence Hall of Korea

“The most unique phenomenon of the March 1st Movement was the role of women”


It is not very difficult to read women’s independence as a vital part of the March 1st Movement. A foreign journalist who was at the historical scene captured women’s leading role in the March 1st Movement.


“The most extraordinary feature of the uprising of the Korean people is the part taken in it by the girls and women. Less than twenty years ago, a man might live in Korea for years and never come in contact with a Korean woman of the better classes, never meet her on the street, never see her in the homes of his Korean friends. ” (Frederick Arthur McKenzie, 1920)


Frederick Arthur McKenzie (1869~1931) was a Scotts-Canadian born in Quebec, Canada. He worked as an Asia correspondent of the Daily Mail and that is how he made a connection with Korea. McKenzie, who was an excellent journalist, spread the message to the world that “the Korea-Japan Annexation” (韓日合拼條約, 1910) was not wanted by the Korean people. When the March 1st Movement was taking place, he also advocated that the world powers, including the US, should listen carefully to the Korean people’s voice.


With the information he collected while covering the March 1st Movement, he published the 320-page book Korea’s Fight for Freedom in 1920. The book sheds light on Korean society and its independence movement from the point of view of a journalist who keenly observed and recorded events and a global citizen who supported world peace.


In the last chapter of the book, McKenzie criticizes world powers like the US who ingratiated themselves with Japan and ignored the nationwide independence movement of Korean people. He gave a serious warning to them that if they did not restrain the expansion of Japanese imperialism, there would be a huge conflict within 30 years and the US would be burdened the most by it. His warning became realized and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 triggered America’s entry into the Second World War.


In his book, in which he wrote about the March 1st Movement with an objective analysis and thoughtful insight into the circumstances of the Asian region and the world, he points out that the role of women—especially of young women—was extremely remarkable.


“I have lived for a week or two at a time, in the old days, in the house of a Korean man of high class, and have never once seen his wife or daughters.”


About 20 years earlier, when McKenzie came to Korea, he could not see any women on the street or even at his friend’s place. Therefore, he was indeed shocked to see women taking initiative in the March 1st Demonstration.


Women’s public invisibility when McKenzie first arrived was hugely influenced by Confucian culture. Women were supposed to stay in the domestic sphere and the outside world was men’s domain. A notable change during the 20 years before the independence movement was the foundation of girls’ schools, which allowed girls to study.


McKenzie theorized that the introduction of the Christian schools and a modern lifestyle made young women choose the new culture and led to the collapse of conventional way of living.


Female students rejected “obedience” in favor of national independence


In the book The History of Korean Women’s Movements: Focusing on the National Movement during Japanese Colonial Rule, which was published in 1971, the author Jung Yo-seob explains that educated Korean women of the time were against the Japanese education policy and the traditional model of women. He also notes that these women sought a social awakening as well as improvement in the status of women.


“In the days of the Japanese colonial rule, the education policy towards Korean women was a preparation to make them “Japanized women.” The ideal model proposed by the Japanese was that of the obedient women. In other words, they imposed their education policy under the guise of “developing womanly virtue and good nature,” and taught absolute obedience to Korean women. This brought about the regression of the modern women’s education. However, educated women pursued an ideal model of women’s education further developed than that of a good wife and wise mother.”


Even though girls’ schools were founded and higher education was provided, women and men still strictly kept their distance from each other and girls’ mobility was limited, as they needed permission from their fathers when they wanted to go out. They were also not allowed to speak about politics and society, and they had to keep their chastity and were not allowed to show their bodies to others. Society was dominated by such sexual norms.


Despite such social restrictions, young women, especially girl students of state schools, organized manse demonstrations and participated in the March 1st Movement with a strong social belief that they needed to come forward in order to recover the national sovereignty.


In the book Study of the History of Korean Women’s Anti-Japanese Movement, which was published in 1996, the author Park Yong-ok reveals that female students encouraged the crowd and bravely led the demonstrations in spite of strong suppression from the Japanese colonial rule that even men did not dare to fight against.


There is also a story in the book about Jawaharlal Nehru (1889~1964), who led the Indian Independence Movement against the British colonial rule. When Nehru was imprisoned for the sixth time, he sent a letter to his 16-year old daughter Indira (Indira Gandhi; 1917~1984) about Korean girls’ independence movement.


“The Korea-Japan Annexation is the most tragic and horrible incident in human history. I know you will be touched once you know these young girl students played an important role in the anti-Japanese struggle.”


“Girl students started it”, “it was organized by women”


It is easy to confirm that the manse demonstrations were planned and led by women by simply reading the news stories of March 1919.


In March 1919, the Maeil Shinbo newspaper was flooded by short news stories about the manse demonstrations in Seoul, Pyeongyang, Gaeseong, Jinju, Mokpo and many other places.


“Girl students started it,” “Riots of girl students,” “Conspiracy of girl students,” “Jinju —gisaeng led the way,” “Old Masan—there were many women”… such headlines and the news stories indicate that women in every corner of Korea led the anti-Japanese movement.


“In the 3rd of March at two in the afternoon in Gaeseong, the shouts of manse started. In Gaeseong, most of the preparation and the uprising were carried out by women.”    


In 1980, ‘The March 1st Sisters’ Group’ published History of Korean Women’s Independence Movement: 60th Anniversary of the March 1st Movementto commemorate the 60th anniversary of the March 1st Movement. The book documents women’s manse demonstrations by regional groups as well as the names of leaders.


Some of the names in the book are Choi Eun-hee from Seoul Gyeongseong Girls’ High School, Kim Jeong-ae from Baehwa Girls’ High School, Hwang Hyun-soon from Sookmyeong Girls’ High School, Shin Maxilla from Ehwa Girls’ High School, Kim Maria from Jeong-shin Girls’ High School, Na Hye-seok from Jinmyeong Girls’ High School, and Yu Gwan-sun, who went back to her hometown, Cheonan, and organized the famous demonstration in Awunae Marketplace. There are also Eo Yun-hee and Lee Gyeong-ji sisters from the Gaeseong region, An Jeong-seok and Park Hyun-sook from Pyeongyang, Lee Soon-ae from Daegu and Ju Gyeong-ah from Busan. These names remain in history.


However, as The 80-year History of Ehwa states, “There is no way to find out the list of participants and students who were imprisoned after being charged with the leading role,” so there must have been a number of nameless female students, teachers and religious adherents who organized and led the independence movement.


The names of the women participants who did not belong to any schools are not recorded anywhere, and so we can only guess how many women acted against the Japanese colonial rule and were persecuted, on the basis of the records mentioned above.


▲ A statue of martyr Yu Gwan-sun in Cheonan   ©The Memorial Hall of Martyr Yu Gwan-sun

There was no “wire-puller”


As McKenzie pointed out, the role of teenage girls in the organization of the March 1st Movement was something outstanding.      


Korea’s Fight for Freedom notes, “Female students were most active in Seoul. For instance, most of the people arrested in the morning of the 5th of March were girl students.” 


Jung Yo-seob, who wrote The History of Korean Women’s Movement: Focusing on the National Movement during the Japanese Colonial Rule, estimated that about ten thousand girl students participated in the demonstrations.


At that time, the Japanese police believed there was a “wire-puller” behind them who organized and conducted the manse demonstrations. The Japanese police were desperately searching for this hidden power by arresting and interrogating students. However, behind the girl students, there were only their strong will and belief.


In fact, girl students worried about their participation causing harm to their teachers and elders. They secretly had meetings and organized the manse demonstration. All girl students in the mission schools withdrew themselves from school so that they could participate in the demonstration without causing any problems to American missionaries.


In Modern History of Women in Korea, Vol. 1, published by March 1st Movement participant Choi Eun-hee, the memoirs and the testimonies collected explain the girl students’ attitudes toward the independence movement and how they fought.


According to the book, 14-year old Kim Jeong-ae of Mokpo’s Jeongmyeong Girls’ School took the head even when she was surrounded by the military police and being arrested; she shouted, “Why are you saying we can’t fight without being manipulated by teachers? Are you saying only grown-ups in Japan love their country but children don’t? Like useless mouths? In Korea even a mere child knows how to love their country. We are already grown-up ladies of 14-or-15 years old.”


The students who were arrested in the manse demonstration in Gaeseong on the 3rd of March were from Hosudon Girls’ High School. Eo Yun-hui, who was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment, answered her interrogator by saying, “When it’s dawn, do roosters cry under the command of someone? We rise up because it’s time to become independent.”


Yu Gwan-sun as a symbol of teenage girls instead of a symbol of the nation


In the process of remembering the March 1st Movement and assessing its significance, it is very important for us today to keep in mind that 90 years ago, teenage girls organized and led the independence movement and the manse demonstrations without the influence of their fathers or teachers. 


Even though it has been more than 90 years since the March 1st Movement occurred, almost everyone knows Yu Gwan-sun. In historical records, she has been made into symbols—that of the “Nation’s Sister” and the “Flower of the Independence Movement”.


However, the name of “Nation’s Sister” should be now recognized as a symbol of a number of women—especially teenage girls, female students, and other girls—who were active leaders of the March 1st Movement. In addition, women who conducted nonviolent struggles, like gisaeng, housewives and wives of butchers, should also become symbols like Yu Gwan-sun.


If history remembered the nationwide March 1st Movement as “the nonviolent struggle led by Korean teenage girls,” it wouldn’t have been so surprising to see teenage girls’ participation in the peaceful candlelight demonstrations against the importation of US beef suspected of containing mad cow disease  in 2008.


By Cho-Lee Yeoul

Published: February 28, 2013

Translated by Gayoung Yoon


*Original article:


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