Until the 19th century, diving was mostly done by men. The job became unprofitable for men since they had to pay heavy taxes, unlike women who did not. Women took over the diving (which was considered the lowest of jobs) and, because of the great dependence on sea products in most places on Jeju, became the main breadwinners. It could also be said that women simply were more adapted for the job, with their bodies keeping them warmer and being more suited to swimming than a male, with more body fat. With that, they often became “the head” of their family. On Mara Island, where sea products accounted for almost all sources of revenue before it became increasingly attractive as a tourist site, gender roles were entirely reversed. Often men would look after the children and go shopping while the women would bring in money for the family.
This evolution clashed with Korea’s Confucian culture, in which women have traditionally been treated as inferior. As a result, administrators from Seoul (unsuccessfully) tried to bar the women from diving, ostensibly because they exposed bare skin while at sea.
Haenyo are skilled divers who are known to be able to hold their breath for more than two minutes and dive to depths of 20 meters. The divers must also contend with other dangers such as jelly fish, and sharks. .
Starting from the late 1970s, exports of sea products to Japan such as abalone and conch have made the sea women richer than ever, allowing them to fix their houses, build new ones in Jeju City and send their daughters to college. However, there is a threat to the haenyo’s continued success: with their daughters choosing to work in the island’s tourism industry or in the big cities, the haenyo will most likely disappear. While in 1950 there were as many as 30,000 haenyo on the island, in 2003 there were only 5,650 sea women registered as divers, of whom 85% were over 50 years old. With the number of sea women declining and with tourism giving Jeju men more opportunities, it is unclear what will happen to their daughters’ status in their communities and home, though it is unlikely that the matriarchal family structures will continue to survive.