Lee Tai-Young was the first Korean woman ever to become a lawyer and a judge as well as the founder of the first Korean legal aid center. She was born in what is now North Korea in 1914, the daughter of a gold miner. She received a degree in home economics from Ewha Womans University, a Methodist college, and married a Methodist minister in 1936. Lee had dreams of becoming a lawyer when she came to Seoul to study at Ewha, but when her husband fell under suspicion of being a spy for the U.S. and was jailed for sedition by the Japanese colonial government in the early 1940s, she had to go to work to maintain her family. She took jobs as a school teacher and a radio singer, and took in sewing and washing as well.
After the war, Lee continued her studies with the support of her husband. In 1946, she became the first woman to attend Seoul National University and earned her law degree in 1949. She was the first woman ever to pass the National Judicial Examination in 1952. Five years later she founded the Women’s Legal Counseling Center, a law practice that provided services to poor women. Lee, along with her husband, were participants in the 1976 Myongdong Declaration, which called for the return of civil liberties to Korean citizens. Because of her political views, she was arrested as an enemy of President Park Chung-hee, and in 1977 received a three-year suspended sentence along with a loss of civil liberties including being automatically disbarred for ten years.
Her law practice evolved into the Korea Legal Aid Center for Family Relations and served more than 10,000 clients per year. She authored 15 books on women’s issues, beginning with a 1957 guide to Korea’s divorce system. In 1972, she published Commonsense in Law for Women; other notable titles include Born A Woman and The Woman of North Korea. She also translated Eleanor Roosevelt’s book On My Own into Korean. In 1975, the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation chose her as the recipient of their Community Leadership Award; she was given an award by the International Legal Aid Association in 1978. She received international recognition from many quarters, including an honorary law doctorate from Drew University in Madison, NJ in 1981. In 1984, she published a memoir, Dipping the Han River Out with a Gourd, four years before she passed away at the ripe old age of 84.