Years before the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the U.S. Constitution flared and then fizzled, Americans wrote an ERA (actually an article) into Japan’s post-war constitution. To be more accurate, a young woman, Beate Sirota Gordon, wrote the language of Article 24 that guarantees equal rights for women.
Gordon passed away over New Year’s at age 89, the last surviving member of that small cadre of American occupation officers and civilians who drafted Japan’s post-war charter that is still in force and has never been amended. Her memory lives on with Japan’s feminists, who often refer to her handiwork as “Beate’s Gift.”
The document is best known for its famous war-renouncing Article 9, but even more far reaching in consequence and impact on daily lives of millions of Japanese women is Article 24, which reads:
“Marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes, and it shall be maintained through mutual cooperation with equal rights of the husband and wife as a basis. With regard to the choice of spouse, property rights, inheritance, choice of domicile and other matters pertaining to marriage and the family, laws shall be enacted from the standpoint of the individual dignity and essential equality of the sexes.”
Gordon was only 22 when she joined Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s staff in Tokyo as a translator. The daughter of Russian-Jewish émigrés, she had lived in Japan in the years before the war. She recounts that she was motivated in part to write the equal rights article from memories of watching women walking behind their husbands in public. At school in the U.S. when hostilities began, she quickly returned to Japan after the surrender, partly to find her parents, who had been interned, and to take part in the great adventure of transforming Japan.