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Jewesses with Attitude

Meet Beate Sirota Gordon – Who Knew?

Beate Sirota Gordon (1923-2012), feminist and Asian arts impressario, was only 22 years old when she wrote women's rights into Japan’s constitution. In her postwar career as a director of performing arts, first for the Japan Society and then the Asia Society in New York City, she introduced Americans to Asian visual and performing arts, from Japanese wood block prints to Burmese music to Vietnamese puppets.

Born in Vienna to Ukrainian Jewish parents, she was not raised in a religiously observant household. When she was five, her father, a classical pianist, undertook a six-month concert tour to Japan and decided to stay, teaching music at the Imperial Academy. Her parents pulled her out of the German school in Tokyo when Nazified teachers taught the children to say Heil Hitler.

Her parents did not believe there would be war between Japan and the U.S., and when she was 15, they sent her to the U.S.  They were interned as enemies of the state in a small fishing village in Japan, and it was many years before she knew what had become of them. (They survived the war.) In California, Beate attended Mills College, while helping monitor radio broadcasts from Japan and later writing radio scripts urging Japanese civilians to surrender. At the end of the war, hoping to locate her parents, she returned to Japan as a translator for the U.S. Army.

Charged with coming up with a new constitution, defeated Japanese officials sought to enshrine feudal principles into law. Frustrated with their work, General Douglas McArthur took over; his team had a week to write Japan’s new constitution. As the one woman on the team, Gordon was given the task of writing the clauses about women's rights. She remembered as a child seeing Japanese women on the street walking six steps behind their men. Her clauses granted married women property rights, the right to divorce, and equal legal rights—the last clause still in advance of the U.S. Constitution, where an amendment to guarantee women equal rights has never been ratified.  

Fearing Japanese resentment of foreigners—especially a young American woman—imposing a constitution on their nation, Gordon kept silent about her contribution until 1995, when an American lawyer who worked on the team revealed her role. “Beate-san,” as she was known in Japan, became a feminist icon after the publication of her memoir, The Only Woman in the Room in 1995. Japanese women founded “Thank You Beate Clubs”; she was the subject of a documentary film and a play. She was not, however, revered by everyone. In recent years, conservative members of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party denounced the women's clauses of the constitution as "egoism in postwar Japan leading to the collapse of family and community," and she found herself defending her work.

By the time her role in shaping Japan’s constitution became known, she was well established as a promoter of Asian art and culture.  She had married the chief interpreter on McArthur’s team and in 1948, returned with him and her parents to the U.S. She had two children, and while they were young, worked part-time at the Japan Society as director of student programs, initially, helping Japanese exchange students in the U.S, and subsequently arranging performances and tours in the U.S. for traditional and avant-garde artists from Japan.  Later, as director of programs at the Asia Society, she travelled throughout Asia—to remote mountain hamlets in Borneo and the Australian outback—to bring artists and performers to the U.S.  She staged the first Asian programs at Lincoln Center, pioneered in introducing programs about Asia in the schools, and was the first to arrange tours of the U.S. by performers from the People's Republic of China. To Beate Sirota Gordon, women's rights, world peace, and appreciation of the arts were inextricably connected.  She died at the end of December 2012 at the age of 89.

Beate Sirota Gordon
Full image
Beate Sirota Gordon. Taken by Photographer Mark Stern at the Asia Society in 1987.

How to cite this page

Pleck , Elizabeth. "Meet Beate Sirota Gordon – Who Knew?." 28 March 2013. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 2, 2014) <http://jwa.org/blog/meet-beate-sirota-gordon-who-knew>.

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