Beate Sirota Gordon '38     Biography #2

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Japanese woman tells of life as a civil rights activist
Beate Sirota Gordon, co-writer of the Japanese constitution, tells her story

Staff Writer

     As a young girl growing up in Tokyo, Beate Sirota Gordon recognized women had very few rights in Japan during the 1920s and 30s.
     She presented a speech titled, "Before and After the Creation of the Japanese Constitution," on Wednesday, March 6 in McEwen Hall Room 209. Author of The Only Woman in the Room, Gordon's discussion was followed by a book signing. This lecture is part of the Convocation series for 2001-2, "Traditions and Transitions."
     Gordon spoke in a loud, clear voice of her involvement in writing the women's rights clause of the Japanese constitution
     "Women would always walk behind their husbands in public," Gordon said. "They could not divorce their husbands and had no inheritance or property rights," said Gordon.
     At the age of 15 1/2, Gordon went to Oakland, California and attended Mills College. With the start of World War II, the Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service hired Gordon to listen to and interpret radio broadcasts from Japan.
     "I was one of only sixteen people in the United States who spoke Japanese," said Gordon.
     Gordon admitted the job was demanding because it was difficult to translate from Japanese to English within a very short time frame. The Office of War Information was Gordon's next employer during the war. Her deepest desire was to work in New York. In New York, Gordon was hired by Time magazine. She worked as an editorial researcher on Japan for some of the magazine's male writers. According to Gordon, women could not be writers, were paid less than men and weren't acknowledged the way the writers were.
     "If there was a mistake in an article, the woman editorial researcher was to blame," said Gordon, noting the discrimination against women in the United States.
     Gordon returned to Tokyo in the winter of 1945 as a "civilian attached to the army." Gordon revealed Tokyo was completely destroyed after the war.
     "I didn't even recognize the surroundings where I used to live," said Gordon.
     In her job at the Political Affairs Division in Tokyo, Gordon's office was very close to General Douglas MacArthur.
     "I used to hide every time he came into the building because I was so afraid of him," said Gordon.
     Gordon recalled the day she was brought into a conference room and told by General Whitney, "Under General Douglas MacArthur, you are now a constitutional assembly and you will draft the new constitution for Japan."
     The panel of 20 foreigners was split up into divisions and told they had seven days to write a new constitution. Twenty-two year old Gordon, along with two other men, was assigned to the civil rights section of the constitution. Gordon was given the task of developing the rights for Japanese women. Gordon researched the constitutions of ten other countries to writer her contributions. Basing her ideas on these samples, she transcribed 25 different rights for women ranging from social welfare to children's education.
     "I knew in my heart and my mind these had to be in the constitution. I wanted so much for the women to have these rights," said Gordon.
     Not all of the provisions Gordon recorded were included in the final constitution. The fundamental rights were included, but the social welfare rights were removed.
     Gordon also discussed the success of the Japanese constitution. The majority of Japanese people are against the amendment. The Peace Clause, Gordon noted, may be a problem in the future. This clause states Japan cannot send any military forces outside the country.
     "Japan can defend themselves on their own soil, but cannot send a single soldier anywhere," said Gordon.
     The constitution was also successful in bringing about equality to women in Japan. Women have political power and are free to choose where they study and work.
     "Compared to 56 years ago, it is phenomenal what women have achieved. I urge all women to be active and help to bring about peace," said Gordon.
     All in attendance enjoyed Gordon's inspirational and informative stories. Liz Pipher, junior, president of Amnesty International, wished more members of her organization could have attended the discussion.
     "I think it's amazing what she did and how she is able to talk about it," Pipher said.


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