Beate Sirota Gordon: Gave Japanese Women Equal Rights

staff | March 30, 2009

Laura Beaujon)

Read about the woman who was instrumental in shaping women’s (and basic human) rights in Japan–even as an outsider/expatriate, and at age 22.

Beate Sirota Gordon grew up in Tokyo, the daughter of a Ukrainian expatriate teacher. She observed the period in Japan when wives walked behind their husbands. When she became the only woman (at age 22) assigned to work on the post-World War II Japanese Constitution on General MacArthur’s committee, she saw an opportunity to make a difference.

Knowing the traditional family values and women’s point of view of Japan, as well as the struggles that Western women had been facing for the previous few decades, Ms. Gordon used her influence to write portions of articles into the Constitution in order to secure Japanese women’s rights and equality.

Two of the articles she drafted survived in the new Constitution: Article 24 and Article 14 (1).

Article 24:

1. Marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes and it
shall be maintained through mutual cooperation with the equal rights of
husband and wife as a basis.

2. 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 equality of the sexes.

Article 14:

1. 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.

Despite the growing number of “career women” in Japan, traditional values still hold strong. I went to one of the nation’s best single sex schools in Tokyo, and always felt that we were ready to stand up to boys in the society. But I have seen my friend become a stay-at-home mom after completing her
studies at medical school because it was assumed by her family that the mother should stay home and take care of the child. (And some older and more conservative people may assume that the husband doesn’t make enough money to support his family if the wife works outside of home.) Another friend of mine had a hard time getting married to the man she chose, because of the families’ class distinctions.

We Japanese are still struggling to balance old customs, traditions and values with human rights and new responsibilities. It’s clear that Ms. Gordon’s effort and contribution became the basis for the laws for women’s equal rights that were later written. I truly appreciate her passion, and respect her as a visionary leader. – Chie Witt

Beate Sirota Gordon, author of the memoir “The Only Woman in the Room” spoke at Middlebury College in 2007:

More about Sirota-Gordon:
Beate Sirota Gordon spent many decades of her life in new york city, working for both the Asia Society and the Japan Society.

* Great Bio on Sirota’s works.
* Article on Sirota
* Documentary about Sirota, “The Gift from Beate
* Article on Sirota’s influence on Japanese Society