Virginia Woolf is inspiring South Korean feminists

A café in Seoul offers women sanctuary from sexism

By Lena Schipper

On the surface, there is little to distinguish the Woolf Social Club, wedged between a concrete flyover and a Harley Davidson outlet in an upmarket neighbourhood of Seoul, from any other hipster hangout. Customers perch on wooden stools at formica tables, tapping on laptops while they sip their coffee. Records and CDs line the walls; soft jazz trickles from speakers. On the white wall above the bar, in big black letters, is the statement: “More dignity, less bullshit”.

It is only on closer inspection that you realise this is more than just another coffee shop. On the mugs are cartoon drawings of Virginia Woolf, an angry wolf roaring from her shirt. A bookshelf contains South Korean feminist novels and works of self-help (titles include “Lessons on Being Unmarried”) alongside “The Second Sex” by Simone de Beauvoir and “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood. On the wall is a poster for an exhibition of feminist art at a nearby gallery.

“I wanted a space for like-minded women to meet and talk,” says Kim Jina, a 47-year-old former advertising executive and politician who founded the café five years ago. Kim was inspired by Woolf’s dictum that in order to write fiction, a woman needed “five hundred [pounds] a year and a room with a lock on the door”. That is, financial independence and a place to think. The café’s casual vibe is deliberate: she wanted to avoid creating barriers to entry for women who were merely curious, rather than fully committed to the movement. Besides, she adds, “If I limited myself to feminist customers, I could never make a living.”

To the coffee house Opening image: Kim Jina, a feminist from South Korea. From top to bottom: Jina owns a coffee shop in Seoul called “Woolf Social Club” and writes books about feminism. Lee Jae-myung, a former presidential candidate who garnered support from many young women. Supporters of Lee Jae-myung gather in Seoul

South Korea, even its trendy capital, is a difficult place to be a woman. The wage gap between the sexes is the highest in the rich world. Traditional expectations about gender roles, beauty standards and the way women should conduct themselves remain pervasive. “Misogyny surrounds you so naturally that you barely even notice it,” says Kim. “I had no role models, so my idea of how a successful woman should be came straight from ‘Sex and the City’.” For much of her 20s and 30s, she spent most of her money on make-up and expensive handbags, partying every weekend and dreaming about meeting her version of Mr Big, the rich, smooth-talking love interest of the show’s main character, Carrie.

“I never worried about misogyny because I thought being sexually attractive was a form of power,” says Kim. “But eventually I realised that men with real power don’t wear make-up and expensive dresses.” These days she keeps her hair short and has ditched the dresses for crisp white shirts, slouchy suits and trainers. “The point of clothes is to feel comfortable.”

South Korea has the highest wage gap between men and women of any country in the rich world

Her epiphany came when she was passed over for promotion in favour of a male colleague. “My boss said, ‘He needs it more than you because he has a wife and a child to take care of,’ and I realised that I had been wrong to think that all I needed to do was work hard and be good at my job.”

Kim’s burgeoning feminism crystallised in the summer of 2016, after a woman was murdered in a public toilet in an upmarket part of Seoul. The killer initially claimed that he had done it because he had been ignored by women. “I lived right around the corner and I thought: that could have been me,” says Kim. Like many other women, she was upset by media coverage that ignored the misogynist motives for his crime and blamed it entirely on his mental-health problems.

Fight for your rights (from top to bottom) Yoon Suk-yeol, South Korea’s incoming conservative president, received the votes of many young men. Seoul can be a difficult place to be a feminist. Supporters of Yoon Suk-yeol wave flags during the presidential campaign. Jina spoke to 1843 magazine about feminism and the presidential elections in South Korea

The murder prompted South Korean women to come together, initially in online communities, and discuss how to fight back against sexism. Then they took to the streets. In 2018 there was a series of protests against the widespread practice of recording illegal footage of women by hiding small cameras in public toilets or changing rooms.

Kim founded the Woolf Social Club in 2017. “I thought, we talk to each other on the internet, but it would be good to have a physical space in which to do that,” she says. “If you walk around Seoul, you see all these cafés aimed at couples, where women look pretty and lower their voices. I wanted a space where they could raise them.”

“My idea of how a successful woman should be came straight from ‘Sex and the City’”

The place was a hit with young women, but Kim realised that running a feminist business was not enough. To achieve real change, she reckoned she would need to go into politics. In 2020 she co-founded a political party, the Women’s Party, to advance the feminist cause. A few months later came an unexpected opportunity to run for political office when Park Won-soon, the left-wing mayor of Seoul, known for championing socially liberal causes, killed himself. An employee had accused him of sexual harassment (credibly, an inquiry later concluded) and he had been about to face a court case.

Kim embarked on her campaign to become mayor. Her main supporters were ambitious millennial women who had hit a glass ceiling in their careers. “I met so many young women who were so well educated and had tried so hard, and then they get to the job market and see all these super-qualified women being passed over for less qualified men, and they just can’t explain it to themselves,” says Kim. She promised to abolish discrimination in the workplace and fight for better laws against sexual harrassment.

Wake-up call (from top to bottom) Kim Jina makes coffee for customers. Jina clasps a mug decorated with a drawing of the writer Virginia Woolf, after whom her café is named. Sim Sang-jung, another presidential candidate, marches with feminists at a rally on International Women’s Day. Jina waits for a bus below presidential election banners

She didn’t win the election – without backing from a major party, it was always going to be a long shot. Oh Se-hoon, the conservative candidate, was voted in, partly thanks to support from young men: the protests in 2018 had provoked a backlash from men, who saw themselves as the victims of “reverse discrimination”.

But Kim’s campaign had highlighted feminist issues the big parties had ignored – and, on a personal level, reminded her how just how much sexism there was to tackle in South Korean society. “Maybe I was a little naive, but I completely underestimated the amount of hate and harassment I would get online,” she says.

South Korea’s presidential election in March put sexism in the spotlight once again. During his campaign, Yoon Suk-yeol, the conservative candidate, blamed feminists for the country’s low birth rate and promised to abolish the Ministry for Gender Equality and Family. South Korea, he said, no longer had a problem with structural discrimination against women. Yoon won, with many of his votes coming from men in their 20s.

Kim has decided to leave politics. She has written a book about her feminist awakening, hoping that her story will inspire women to stop wasting money on frivolous things and instead focus on their careers and financial independence. For many of the café’s female customers, she has become a role model – someone she never had.

The Woolf Social Club has acquired another important function. “I occasionally see women bring their best casino sites 0 boyfriends here to talk about feminism,” says Kim. Depending on how the conversation goes, the women then decide whether to continue the relationship or ditch it. “I guess it’s a safe space to weed out guys who are bad best casino sites 0s.”

Lena Schipper is The best casino sites 0’s South Asia bureau chief. Prior to that she was Seoul bureau chief

PHOTOGRAPHS JEAN CHUNG

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