Honoring Beate Gordon

Feminism is full of unsung heroes and heroines, individuals who contributed to the cause of women’s rights around the world but have never been properly recognized.  While most readers on this website will recognize names like Susan B Anthony and Gloria Steinem, I wonder how many of us would recognize the name Beate Gordon?  And yet, in spite of the fact that she has never shown up in any of my history books, and I have never come across her in my personal readings, Beate Sirota Gordon made an incredibly important contribution for women.

For those who don’t know, Beate Gordon was a civilian attached to General MacArthur’s army during their occupation of Japan after World War II, and she was an important contributor to the Japanese constitution.  Her role in its formation has caused her in recent years to be recognized in Japan as a feminist heroine: Gordon was not only a female contributor to the writing of a constitution (which is, in and of itself, something noteworthy, given that many constitutions were written exclusively by men…for example, ours), but she almost single-handedly wrote women’s rights into this foundational governing document.

There are all kinds of things that are incredible about this fact: first, that a woman was able to have such an important role; second, that a twenty-two year old was able to have such an important role; and third, that these rights became enshrined in the Japanese constitution in a way that they are not in so many other governing documents.

Beate Gordon had lived in Japan for 10 years and had witnessed first-hand the way that they were treated.  In 1999, she stated in an interview that “Japanese women were historically treated like chattel; they were property to be bought and sold on a whim”.  To Gordon, this was unacceptable, and when the opportunity came to intervene, she took it.  Her contributions to the Japanese constitution secured rights for women pertaining to marriage, divorce, property, and inheritance, rights they had long been denied.

Gordon went on to serve as the director of performing arts for the Japan Society and, later on, the Asia Society, both based in New York.   She kept silent about her work on the Japanese constitution, first because it was secret, and then because her American citizenship would have provided fuel for the conservative movement in Japan pushing for constitutional reform.  For this reason, Beate Gordon’s contribution to women’s rights, though important, has been left out of the larger tale of history, until the 1980s, when she began to talk about her role in writing the Japanese constitution.

Though Beate Gordon received awards from the Japanese government and has been lauded for her work, prior to her death she maintained that the greatest honor was the gratitude that was expressed by the Japanese women whose lives she changed.

Beate Gordon passed away on December 30, 2012, in her New York home.  She is survived by her daughter, son, and three grandchildren.

But Beate Gordon’s life will not be remembered only by her family.  Her contributions to women’s rights through her work on the Japanese constitution have helped to create a model of constitutionally-enshrined equality, and have ensured that Japanese women can no longer be treated like property.  Her reasons for keeping her work secret are honorable, but as they have come to light, they deserve to be recognized.  She is one of the many hands working for a better world, and we are proud today to salute her achievements and her sacrifices.

Rest In Peace, Beate Gordon.

For more on Beate Gordon’s life and death, please see the New York Times article published January 1, here.


~ by Randi Saunders on January 2, 2013.

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