Lee Hyo-jae in 2012. A retired professor of sociology, she took on numerous causes in her long career and was a staunch democracy advocate in the face of dictatorship. Lee Hyo-jae in 2012. A retired professor of sociology, she took on numerous causes in her long career and was a staunch democracy advocate in the face of dictatorship.Credit…via Lynn Rowe By Michael Astor Published Nov. 14, 2020Updated Nov. 19, 2020 When Lee Hyo-jae learned of a university colleague’s research into the Korean “comfort women” who were taken by the Japanese military for use as sex slaves during World War II, she came to view them as victims of one of history’s most brutal war crimes. She spent the next two decades fighting to bring attention to their mistreatment and to secure redress from Japan. But the comfort women were only one of many causes taken up by Professor Lee, one of South Korea’s foremost activists on behalf of women’s rights and democracy. She helped abolish South Korea’s patriarchal naming system, a reform that allowed people to use two surnames to reflect their heritage from both parents, not just the father’s. She helped establish a requirement that half of a party’s candidates running for the National Assembly be women. She pushed for equal pay for equal work. But Professor Lee, who died on Oct. 4 at 95, was especially passionate about the cause of the “comfort women.” As many as 200,000 women from Korea and other Asian countries were conscripted as sex slaves for Japanese troops beginning in the 1930s. After decades of denial, the Japanese government in 1992 acknowledged its involvement, and South Korea and Japan reached a settlement in 2015 that involved an apology from the Japanese government and $8.3 million to provide care for the surviving women, who numbered around 45 at the time. “Japan’s crime against the women is unprecedented, even among the brutal war histories of humankind, because this enslavement of Korean women was carried out systematically as an official policy of the Japanese government,” Professor Lee told the Los Angeles Times in 1994, when a memorial library was dedicated in Koreatown in Los Angeles. “It’s ironic that the first memorial to the women should be in America.” She died of sepsis in a hospital in Changwon, in the country’s southeast, her nephew Lynn Rowe said. After her death, President Moon Jae-in said in a statement, “In the dark times when the stars were brighter, she was one of the most brilliant.” He posthumously awarded her a national medal, an honor she declined in 1996 because the same medal was being given to someone whom she believed to be a government agent planted in the women’s movement. Along with her work on behalf of women, Professor Lee was active in the struggle for democracy when South Korea was under dictatorial rule and for the reunification of the two Koreas. She helped organize a group of 30 activists, including Gloria Steinem and the Nobel Peace laureates Leymah Gbowee and Mairead Corrigan-Maguire, who received international attention for making a rare trip in 2015 across the Demilitarized Zone, separating the North and South, to promote disarmament and peace between the two countries, which are technically still at war. At her death she was a professor emeritus of sociology at the prestigious Ewha Womans University in Seoul, where she inspired generations of young women. Many became leading feminists and rose to key positions in liberal governments. Professor Lee turned down a number of offers to enter politics, preferring her roles as a teacher and an activist. In her later years, she helped found the Miracle Library, a national network of libraries aimed at children and teens in rural areas. Lee Hyo-jae was born on Nov. 4, 1924, in Masan, a precinct of Changwon in Gyeongsang Province, during the Japanese occupation of Korea. Her father, Lee Yak-shin, was a Presbyterian minister and a leader in the church; her mother, Lee Oak-kyung, founded and ran an orphanage. When she was a young woman, her parents brought her to Seoul for an arranged marriage, but Ms. Lee ran away, believing marriage would interfere with her ambitions, Mr. Rowe said. She never married. A few years later her father met Jobe Couch, an American serviceman attached to the U.S. Embassy in Korea. Mr. Couch, who was married without children, became impressed by Ms. Lee’s younger sister Hyo-suk and, in 1945, offered to take her back with him to the United States to get a college education. The sister refused to go without Ms. Lee, however, and so he took them both. Passage to the United States wasn’t easy. Mr. Couch had to enlist the help of an Alabama congressman, Carl Elliott, to obtain visas, and he had to lobby the University of Alabama to accept the sisters on full scholarships even though they did not speak English. Ms. Lee earned a bachelor’s degree at Alabama and went on to earn a master’s in sociology from Columbia University before returning to South Korea in 1957. She founded the sociology department at Ewha the following year. She began teaching the school’s first course in women’s studies in 1977, which led to the development of South Korea’s first graduate level women’s studies program. “She was the most distinguished woman leader at that time,” Jung Byung-joon, a history professor at Ewha, said in an email. He lauded her bravery for taking up the cause of human rights and democratization in a dictatorial era. “It was very challenging and dangerous choice for her to join the anti-regime movement,” he said. Professor Lee was fired from Ewha in 1980 for her opposition to the military regime then in power, but was reinstated in 1986 as the country was returning to democracy. In addition to her nephew, she is survived by her daughter, Hee-kyung; and three sisters, Hyo Suk Rowe, Sung Suk Gaber and Unwha Shin.