The Only Woman in the Room: Beate Sirota Gordon, 1923-2012

Beate Sirota Gordon secured her place in Japanese history practically by virtue of being “the only woman in the room.” That room was the ballroom of the Daiichi Building in occupied Tokyo where the American Occupation’s Government Section cobbled together Japan’s new national charter in a week in early 1946; Gordon—then Beate Sirota—was one of four women on the drafting committee, and certainly the youngest of all at a tender twenty-two years of age. Her serendipitous assignment as the only woman in the subcommittee on civil rights, and her temerity during negotiations to translate the document, ensured that Japan’s postwar constitution protected equality between men and women, at work and in the home.

And so, having never even voted, she faced an Underwood typewriter in a ballroom filling with tobacco smoke on which she typed out her radical alterations to the Japanese Civil Code.

The section on women’s rights fell to her with the almost flippant words of her supervisor: “You’re a woman; why don’t you write the women’s rights section?” Her youth made her an unusual candidate to draft a constitution. But she was an unusual young woman. Having lived for ten years in Japan as a child, she had perhaps the most intimate knowledge of Japan and the Japanese language of all delegated the task. The daughter of celebrated pianist Leo Sirota, who had left the anti-Semitism and tumult of Europe for a position in Japan, Gordon was an undergraduate at Mills College in California when she was separated from her parents by war and was forced into self-sufficiency by age nineteen. She managed this by translating for the war effort, and—after a stint at Time magazine as a researcher—her desire to find her parents led her find a position in occupied Japan. And so, having never even voted before herself, she faced an Underwood typewriter in a ballroom filling with tobacco smoke on which she typed out her radical alterations to the previous Japanese Civil Code in which women were “regarded to be incompetent.”

In the final document, which remains effective to this day, Articles 14 and 24 bear her mark. They spell out that: “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 14), and that “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” (Article 24).

Gordon’s role in the American effort to draft a new national charter in occupied Japan reflected the idealism of that historical moment. Drafted in secrecy and delivered to the Japanese public as though it was an indigenous document, it attempted to go over the heads of Japan’s conservative bureaucrats and offer the population radical change. In many cases, it was change they were ready for; the popular newspaper the Mainichi had stated that an earlier, more cautious draft of the constitution by the Japanese government showed “no understanding that Japan is in a revolutionary period.” The Occupation-generated constitution was certainly revolutionary. The foreign origins of the postwar constitution—a kind of bestowal of “democracy from above”—is at the heart of contemporary debates about constitution revision. However, progressive support for the constitution within Japan remains strong. It was a product of American New Deal optimism, when the Cold War did not yet dictate U.S. policy. Historian John Dower refers to it as a time of “genuine reformist idealism”: “There are moments in history—fleeting occasions of opportunity—when people actually sit down and ask, ‘What is a good society? How can we bring this about?’”

What resulted was one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. Also known as the “peace constitution,” the postwar Japanese constitution renounces the state’s right to wage war, guarantees the rights of workers to act collectively, and protects academic freedom. It is a document of a brief moment. From 1947 on, the Cold War froze the reformist zeal of U.S. foreign policy in East Asia and the Occupation took a conservative “reverse course.” The struggle between the personnel sector that wrote the constitution and the intelligence sector that monitored its articles foreshadowed the McCarthyism that would sweep American public life in the 1950s: even Gordon, small fry though she was, was implicated in the vitriolic, paranoid, and frequently fantastic notes of General Douglas MacArthur’s “pet fascist,” intelligence chief Charles Willoughby. He called Gordon a “childish,” “almost psychopathic,” “stateless jewess” [sic] with imagined family connections to Richard Sorge, a German communist spy who had relayed intelligence from Tokyo to the Soviet Union in the Second World War. Aside from drawing inspiration from the revolutionary Soviet constitution for its specific protection of the rights of women and children, Beate Gordon’s political views were less leftist ideology than youthful idealism.

The fact that she was so young when she wrote equality between men and women into the Japanese constitution made her reluctant to discuss her history, fearing that it could be used as a reason to alter the text and reduce women’s rights. Almost forty years passed before she was publicly recognized and was able to enjoy the adulation of many Japanese feminists. Her status as a heroine among some is reflected in the title of a recent documentary film on women’s rights in postwar Japan, The Gift from Beate.

Although her presence in rooms in which the postwar Japanese constitution was written and translated guaranteed Gordon a place in Japanese history books, her long life cannot be reduced to that week of work. When Japanese feminist and women’s suffrage activist Ichikawa Fusae visited the United States, Gordon served as her interpreter. And Gordon worked for decades to de-exoticize non-Western cultures for Americans, introducing Asian performing and visual arts to the United States through the Japan Society and the Asia Society in New York City. She also conducted several of the oral history interviews in the Allied Occupation of Japan collection at Columbia University in the early 1960s, including one with Kume Ai, the first woman lawyer to pass the bar in Japan. Kume most likely did not know at the time, as she discussed the changed postwar situation for women in Japan, that she was speaking with the woman who had written those changes into the constitution.

However, as Kume noted during the American Occupation in 1946 in response to radical changes in laws affecting women, “Equality on the face of the law does not always mean equality in actuality.” Implementing real equality in the workplace and the family in contemporary Japan remains an ongoing struggle. And Beate Gordon’s life story captures not just the drama and legacy of a historical moment of incredible change, but also the banal injustices faced by women in the workplace in the 1940s and 1950s in the ostensibly democratic United States. Working for Time magazine in the mid-1940s, she noted in her memoir, The Only Woman in the Room, that “for any mistake printed in the magazine the researcher was held responsible, not the writer. All the writers were men, all the researchers were women.” Noting that many of the female researchers were more than qualified to work as writers, she concluded that “in journalism, America’s much-vaunted freedom did not extend to permitting women the freedom to write the news.” Her job application to IBM in Poughkeepsie, where she moved after returning to the United States and marrying Joe Gordon (chief of the interpreter-translator team for the Military Intelligence Section in the Occupation), was rejected because the company did not hire married women. At the most tedious job she worked, as a translator for a bank, she heard side comments such as one by an older female employee who called a pregnant coworker “disgusting.”

Real equality in both Japan and the United States required not just the protection of laws, but also the courage of people who demanded that the reality matched those laws. The “gift of Beate” made it possible for women in Japan to make demands of their employers and their government. Their victories—for not only women but also other underrepresented groups—are the gifts they win for themselves.

Subscribers can read Chelsea Szendi Schieder’s article in the Winter 2013 issue, “Baby Bust in Japan: Is the Personal Political?