Beate Sirota Gordon is an Austrian
woman of Russian
Jewish decent. She was born in 1924. At the age of 22, she helped draft Japan's post-war constitution, and authored two critical articles in the constitution dealing with women's rights
When she was still a child, her father moved the family to Japan so he could teach violin. She became fluent in Japanese. She attended a German
run school in Tokyo until the German/Japanese axis of the '30s. As a Jew she was no longer welcome in the school. Her parents sent her to an all-girls school in California
. It was a wise move for several reasons. She escaped having to spend the war in a Japanese prison camp. At her all girls school in California she encountered the emerging feminist movement
At the end of the war, she hastily returned to Japan to learn the fate of her parents. Fortunately, they survived the prison camp. To make ends meet, Beate Sirota Gordon found a job as a secretary on General MacArthur's office staff.
In the weeks following the American occupation, General MacArthur
moved quickly to establish American control over Japan, fearing the Soviet's late entry into the war would win them some influence. MacArthur's first order of business was to quickly draft a Japanese constitution. Educated Westerners who were fluent in Japanese and English were in short supply. Beate Sirota Gordon was put on the committee to research and write the new constitution. Curiously she was not the only political amateur on the committee. In fact, they all were. MacArthur could not wait.
Although only 22, she understood Japanese culture
, notably the role of women. She went to town, literally. She scoured the Japanese country side looking for libraries that had survived the bombings and collected samples of constitutions around the world. She drafted about a dozen articles for the Japanese constitution
guaranteeing women rights in the work place, politics, health care, child custody, etc.
Many were stripped out. The committee believed some of the issues Gordon raised were probably better handled by subsequent civil laws
. However, two key articles she drafted remained:
Article 14. All of the people are equal under the law and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin.
Article 24. Marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of the both sexes and it shall be maintained through mutual cooperation with equal rights of husband and wife as a basis. With regard to choice of spouse, property rights, inheritance, choice of domicile, divorce and other matters pertaining to marriage and the family, laws shall be enacted from the standpoint of individual dignity and the essential equalities of the sexes. . . .
Gordon made the language detailed and particular. She did not want the entrenched Japanese male
authority to obfuscate
and water down
her articles with subsequent laws.
When the draft constitution was presented to the Japanese they were furious. Women's rights? Fortunately, there were seemingly bigger fish to wrap in sushi rice
. The new constitution reduced the role of the Emperor
to a mere figurehead
. In the furor over that, Gordon's two articles survived.
Oddly enough, it's only recently that the story of the drafting of the Japanese constitution has come out. For years, the people who worked on it and the manner in which the American authorities created it were not widely publicized. It was feared if the Japanese people knew it was the work of amateurs it would be rejected. A number of years ago Gordon chronicled her work in a book called The Only Woman in the Room: A Memoir