Beate Sirota Gordon died at the age of 89 yesterday. She was an amazing woman who singlehandedly changed the destiny of Japanese women by being at the right place at the right time — with the intelligence and confidence to do what only she at the time could do. She was the only woman on General MacArthur’s staff who was assigned to help write a new constitution for Japan at the end of World War II. She wasn’t an expert on constitutional law or a scholar (one has to wonder if that wasn’t a good thing!). She was 22 years old, the only woman in the room, and a talented interpreter who was told to draft articles on women’s rights in just a week.
It was an extraordinary moment for an extraordinary woman. Informed by the U.S. Constitution and constitutions from countries around the world, she changed the course of Japan’s history and the status of Japanese women from that day onward. In Article 14 of the constitution, she wrote, “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 24 gave women protections in areas including “choice of spouse, property rights, inheritance, choice of domicile, divorce and other matters.”
This incredible woman worked to free the women of Japan in a way that seemed almost miraculous. The power of that struck me. I thought to myself of all the things Gordon could have written, of all she could have focused on, and yet she knew what had to come first, the foundation had to be laid — equal rights under the law. The feudal system of the monarchy had denied women liberty and rights to their own property for too long, and Beate knew it had to end in order for them to be set free. With a stroke of a pen, she set loose what was already a fundamental truth coursing through their veins.
Some think those of us who advocate individual rights and liberty for all are not sensitive to the everyday plights of women or to the many issues that face them, the pain they endure, the struggles they face. Some think that because we don’t look for a law or policy to fix everything that’s wrong, that somehow we don’t care. And yet that is so far from the truth. We understand the pain and struggle women face. We know the heartache of every woman who feels helpless as she kneels under the weight of an abuser’s heavy hand. We know. We also know the answer is not in what men can give us. It’s in nature’s God, in the rights given to each of us as individuals. It is not in the promises of government or in the decrees of a king. It’s in the fundamental rights of every human being to live freely and to succeed or fail according to their own initiative or even to the seemingly unjust course of life.
Beate Sirota Gordon did not give the Japanese women free housing, free healthcare, free transportation, free education, or even free birth control. She gave them freedom, and the only reason she could give them that — and the only reason freedom has endured since it was penned in that constitution in 1946 — is because it was born of something bigger than Beate Gordon, something bigger than MacArthur and the United States, and something bigger than Emperor Hirohito.
It was born of nature’s God, and as such it can never be taken away. It can be stolen for a while, as it has been on many, many occasions throughout human history. But inevitably it will rise and break the chains that bind us. It will use whatever means are necessary. Those means might come as educated, determined men gather together in a crowded room during hot summer days to form a more perfect union, or it might come from a single 22-year-old woman who knows nothing about laws and constitutions, who is alone in a room full of men, but who is determined to do what is right to set a people free. That is the power of liberty. That is the power of God.
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