Her work set basis for an equal society
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Beate Sirota Gordon, the daughter of Russian Jewish parents who at 22 almost single-handedly wrote women's rights into the Constitution of modern Japan, and then kept silent about it for decades, only to become a feminist heroine there in recent years, died on Sunday at her home in Manhattan. She was 89. The cause was pancreatic cancer, her daughter, Nicole Gordon, said.
A civilian attached to Gen Douglas MacArthur's army of occupation after WW II, Gordon was the last living member of the American team that wrote Japan's postwar Constitution.
Her work — gave women a set of legal rights pertaining to marriage, divorce, property and inheritance that they had long been without in Japan's feudal society — had an effect on their status that endures to this day. "It set a basis for a better, a more equal society," Carol Gluck, a professor of Japanese history at Columbia University, said Monday. "By just writing those things into the Constitution Beate intervened at a critical moment. And what kind of 22-year-old gets to write a constitution?"
Beate Sirota was born on Oct. 25, 1923, in Vienna, where her parents had settled. Beate was educated at a German school in Tokyo. In 1939, she left for Mills College in Oakland, California. Her parents remained in Japan. In December 1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, it became impossible to contact Japan. Beate had no word from her parents, and no money.
Beate received her bachelor's degree in modern languages from Mills in 1943 and became a United States citizen in January 1945. At war's end, she still did not know whether her parents were alive or dead.
She eventually found her parents and took them to Tokyo, where she nursed them while continuing her work for Gen MacArthur.
One of MacArthur's first priorities was drafting a constitution for postwar Japan begun in February 1946, that had to be finished in just seven days. Beate wound up drafting two articles of the proposed Japanese Constitution. One, Article 14, said in part, "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." The other, Article 24, gave women protections in areas including "choice of spouse, inheritance." The new Constitution took effect in 1947; the next year, Beate Sirota married.
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