The Oregonian: Equal-rights advocate to speak at Portland State University
Author: By Richard Read
Posted: May 17, 2010

If Beate Sirota Gordon put on airs at 86, she might consider herself Japan's female Thomas Jefferson. After all, at age 22, she wrote the equal-rights clause of the Japanese constitution.

Instead the idea of herself as a founding mother provoked laughter last week on the phone from her Manhattan home, where she had just finished hosting the great grandson of a violinist who played sonatas with her late father, famed pianist Leo Sirota.

"Oh, no, that's too ambitious," said Gordon, who maintained her strengths were mainly in linguistics and research. "It was the wisdom of the world that wrote it. Anybody can do research."

Gordon, who speaks Tuesday at Portland State University, is one of those uncommon individuals who excelled when thrust into an entirely unexpected historic role. A U.S. citizen little-known in America, she is revered by women in Japan for securing  rights that were revolutionary in terms of the nation's feudal history.

Japan hands can debate -- and often do -- the extent to which Japanese women have taken advantage of these rights.

Takako Doi became Japan's first female speaker of the house in 1993, having sparked the so-called Madonna boom, inspiring women to enter politics. Fourteen years later Nancy Pelosi, D.-Calif., broke the same glass ceiling in the U.S. Capitol.

Yet only two women serve on Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's 18-member cabinet. President Barack Obama's 22-member cabinet includes seven women.

Gordon -- who arrived in Japan on a ship from Russia in 1929 at age 5 with her Jewish-emigre parents -- says she has seen a world of change.

"Old customs still prevail in many of the families there; there's no question," Gordon says. "But just look at the number of women journalists, mayors, vice governors, even some governors."

"Considering they've had only 60 years to change things from a feudal, militaristic society, which is the society I grew up in before the war in Japan, it's unbelievable."

Gordon tells the story in her book, "The Only Woman in the Room," first published in 1997 by Kodansha International, Japan's largest publisher -- a company headed, incidentally, by a woman.

She describes returning from the United States to Japan on Christmas Eve 1945, when from a propeller plane she viewed charred ruins and solitary chimneys in the bombed-out nation that had considered itself invincible. She was assigned to the general headquarters of the Supreme Commander Allied Powers, where Gen. Douglas MacArthur was directing the Occupation.

"I was afraid of Gen. MacArthur," Gordon wrote, "and used to hide behind a pillar when he passed by."

Gordon summoned courage, however. She found her parents, who had remained in Japan, and got them medical treatment. She commandeered a Jeep for the top-secret mission of finding constitutions from various nations in three libraries still standing in Tokyo.

Her resulting Article 24 resides in Japan's constitution, proclaiming the "essential equalities of the sexes," a line that Japanese officials opposed.

Critics have attacked the article over the years, as well as U.S.-imposed Article 9, which prohibits acts of war. But defenders including grassroots women's groups have defended it.

American proponents of an equal-rights amendment have failed to enshrine such a clause in the U.S. constitution. Gordon has reviewed new constitutions of Iraq and Afghanistan to find that rights given to women are subject to decisions by religious courts.

Japanese women often tell Gordon that, but for her, they would not have been able to go abroad to study, or become lawyers or seize other opportunities. "That's wonderful to hear," Gordon said.

"But what's most gratifying is that they took the opportunity and used it. Because you've got to do it yourself, in the end."

Gordon, who lives in relative anonymity on New York's upper west side, guesses that only about 30,000 Americans know Japan's constitution contains a clause on women.

In her 80s, Gordon still enjoys traveling to give talks -- her Portland appearance his scheduled, perhaps auspiciously, on primary-election day. "It is necessary," she said, "to spread the word."