Obit of the Day: “The Only Woman in the Room”
Beate (pronounced “bay-AH-tay”) Sirota Gordon was trying to find her parents. That was her goal. And while successful, Mrs. Gordon had a far greater influence on women’s rights in Japan, while helping to write its post-World War II constitution - at age of 22.
Mrs. Gordon was born in Vienna and moved to Japan when her father, noted pianist Leo Sirota, was invited to teach at the Imperial Academy of Music in Tokyo. Moving there when she was five, Mrs. Gordon would stay in Japan for over a decade before leaving for Mills College in California when she was just sixteen.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, contact with Japan became impossible and Mrs. Gordon had no idea whether he parents were safe. While she continued to worry, Mrs. Gordon volunteered for the war effort. Fluent in Japanese, she was assigned to the United States War Information Office in San Francisco to listen in on Japanese radio communications. (Mills College allowed her to skip classes and simply take exams.)
In May 1945, Mrs. Gordon became a U.S. citizen and also graduated from college. Her parents still unaccounted for, Mrs. Gordon flew to Washington, D.C. to volunteer as an interpreter. She was assigned to General Douglas MacArthur’s staff.
Setting foot in Japan for the first time in four years, Mrs. Gordon immediately set out to find her mother and father. They were being held in an internment camp and she was able to have them released and brought them back to Tokyo to nurse them back to health.
In February 1946, Mrs. Gordon and the rest of General MacArthur’s staff were ordered to write a new constitution for Japan. They had seven days. Even with no experience in law or politics Mrs. Gordon was asked to handle the sections dealing with women’s rights. Mrs. Gordon found herself wandering through the ruins of Tokyo looking for libraries with copies of constitutions from around the world.
When the constitution was finished she had written two articles:
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.
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.
These two passages gave women an equality not seen in Japan’s history.
When the constitution was formally published in March 1946, Mrs. Gordon and the other Americans who wrote the document went unacknowledged. It was important for the new Japanese government that they be given the credit for the constitution. Later Mrs. Gordon felt that he age and gender would only fan flames as conservatives in Japan attacked aspects of the document.
She took her rightful place in Japanese history with the publication of her memoir, The Only Woman in the Room, in 1995. (It was published in the U.S. in 1997.) Mrs. Gordon detailed her involvement in the formation of the constitution and instead of outrage she was fêted and praised. The Japanese government awarded The Order of the Sacred Treasure in 1998 and she was the subject of a play and a documentary.
Beate Sirota Gordon passed away on December 30, 2012 at the age of 89. She was the last surviving member of the American group who wrote the constitution.
Sources: New York Times, Japan Times, and The Gift from Beate
(Image of Mrs. Gordon’s War Department identification is courtesy of www.shinyawatanabe.net)