“My husband always laughs when I speak on the telephone,” said Beate Sirota Gordon in a phone interview last Friday. “I’m always bowing my head.”
According to Gordon, she has adopted certain Japanese ways of living, such as bowing her head in conversation, from the time she spent there as a child, just before she came to Mills College in 1935 at the tender age of 15. It was at Mills, she said, that she gained the feminist education that helped her draft Articles 14 and 24 of the Japanese constitution, which legally guaranteed the rights of Japanese women, when she was 22 years old.
Because of her love of Mills and women’s education, Gordon has agreed to speak at this year’s Commencement ceremony.
“I think Mills was an institution that was one of the early feminist institutions. I learned a lot about women and rights and discrimination,” Gordon said. “I had a very wonderful experience because the classes were very small, so I could ask questions and get feedback, which is very good for someone from another country experiencing some culture shock.”
Article 14 of the Japanese constitution deems all people equal under law, including both sexes, and outlaws discrimination. Article 24 requires marriage to be consensual between both sexes and states that husband and wife should receive the same rights.
Mary-Ann Milford, an art history professor at Mills, thinks Gordon’s experience in another country was instrumental to her ability to advocate equal rights in 1946, long before the feminist movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
“It is amazing: the foresight of this young woman, which, of course, came from her background having lived abroad,” Milford said. “All of these experiences (abroad) had given her a sense of the world that was quite extraordinary.”
Milford believes that Gordon’s experiences abroad combined with her education at Mills, including the influence of then president Aurelia Reinhardt, helped shape Gordon’s world view.
“Aurelia Reinhardt was an amazing woman, a very strong woman, a visionary, I should say, for women’s rights and for the encouragement to fight what we deem is right for us,” Milford said. “I think that Aurelia Reinhardt was probably very influential in Beate’s education.”
Gordon does, in fact, attribute some of her inspiration to Reinhardt.
“I think Aurelia Reinhardt was very advanced,” Gordon said. “She encouraged women to compete on an equal basis with men when they graduated into the world.”
After World War II ended and she graduated from Mills, Gordon took it upon herself to facilitate cultural exchange projects in hopes that Americans would start to see fewer differences and more similarities between other culture of the world.
“After the war, when we all thought we’d never be at war again, the best way to teach a new culture was through the arts. Arts go directly to the heart” Gordon said. “I felt it was a way to peace. I really wanted to inspire people to learn more about (other cultures).”
Gordon began her search for arts to bring to the United States by traveling to almost every country in Asia, looking far and wide for whatever art she deemed communicative. The first troupe she invited to tour the U.S. practiced kyojin, a series of short plays Gordon describes as easily understood and perfect for tourists.
“(Kyojin) has comic relief in the way Shakespeare does,” Gordon said. “(The actors) were speaking a different language, but by the expressions and the movements, you could understand a lot.”
Gordon would invite the audience to come early so that they could see the performers prepare beforehand.
“Sometimes, before the performance, I’d have an extra demonstration in the other room so (the audience) would not feel so different from the art being presented,” Gordon said. “(I invited them) just to make people not so scared of this new culture.”
As Gordon is invigorated by Mills, the students of the College are equally inspired by Gordon. According to Renee Jadushlever, Vice President of Operations, the senior class suggested that Gordon speak at this year’s Commencement.
“We are delighted that Beate Sirota Gordon has agreed to be the 2011 commencement speaker,” Jadushlever said in an e-mail. “Mrs. Gordon will talk about her life and the things and people which have influenced and prepared her and enabled her to make such an important contribution to Japanese history.”
According to President Janet Holmgren, Gordon spoke at the 1991 Commencement, which Holmgren was unable to attend as she was not yet the head of the college.
“It’s a wonderful symmetry, having her return 20 years later,” Holmgren said. “I’m thrilled.”
Milford believes that Gordon is a great example for the Mills community.
“(Gordon is an example of) taking adversity and turning it inside out and recognizing that everyone has inner strength,” Milford said. “She is someone who has known hardship, but she has used those experiences to better the world.”
Milford hopes that those who attend Commencement and hear Gordon speak will be able to draw from Gordon’s inner strength and be inspired.
“Nobody else is going to fight this fight for us except for us as women,” Milford said. “A lot of times I get, ‘Oh feminist movement, women’s studies – that’s old hat. We can have access to everything we want.’ I don’t think so. We still have a long way to go and those who work really hard and who are motivated will.”
Mills Commencement ceremony will begin on Toyon Meadow at 9:45 a.m.
The Commencement address will precede the conferring of degrees and awarding of honorary degrees.
For more related posts, check out our Commencement page.