Japanese woman tells
of life as a civil rights activist
Beate Sirota Gordon, co-writer of the Japanese
constitution, tells her story
By LINDI GEISENHEIMER
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
"If there was a mistake in an article, the woman editorial researcher
was to blame," said Gordon, noting the discrimination against women in the
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
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
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
"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.