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The Politician Who Took a Sledgehammer to Patriarchal Norms

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n 1973, March Fong Eu stood before an audience at Foothill College in Los Altos and made a searing speech, titled The Self-Sufficient Woman. In it, she directed her gaze squarely at the patriarchy and despaired at the state of gender equality in America.

“Maybe if some men had to bear and rear unwanted babies themselves, they would understand better our resentment of laws relating to our reproductive systems,” she said. “Maybe if some men let their wives involuntarily control their income, they would understand better our resentment of present discriminatory statutes directed toward women as a class. And maybe if some men were raped, and, in pursuit of justice, they found that they had to reveal humiliating information about their past lives, maybe then they would understand the anger of women who feel they are doubly wronged by rapists and the laws concerning rape.”

Evidently, Fong Eu was not one to mince words. She was not one to be trifled with. The first generation daughter of Chinese immigrants spent her entire life working to smash down the barriers that women faced at every turn. And Fong Eu was successful in that pursuit at every stage of her career.

First, she graduated from UC Berkeley. Then came a Master’s from Mills. Finally, she earned her Ph.D at Stanford. In her first profession as a dental hygienist, Fong Eu became the first woman and first Asian American to chair UCSF’s Department of Dental Hygiene. Then, starting in 1956, Fong Eu served three terms on the Alameda County Board of Education, serving as its president between 1961 and ’62. After that came the big one: In 1966, she won a place on the California State Assembly — with a margin of more than a million votes. Representing Oakland and Castro Valley, Fong Eu was one of only two women serving on the 118-person assembly at the time.

“There is no argument to the opinion that this nation could benefit greatly by increased participation by women in decision-making positions,” she later said. “We do bring to bear unique experiences and insights, unlike our male counterparts.”

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n 1969, Fong Eu demonstrated that point when she went to war against pay toilets in public buildings. At the time, men’s urinals were free to use, but stalls cost a dime to access. It was an early example of what we now refer to as the “pink tax” — the extra money women are forced to pay for products and services. Fong Eu campaigned fervently for a statewide ban on the bathroom fee, using a combination of tenacity and humor.

The campaign culminated in a stunt on the steps of Sacramento’s Capitol building, during which Fong Eu smashed a padlocked toilet with a sledgehammer. She flung the sledgehammer with such gusto, assembled journalists were forced to duck out of the way. The speech she made that day was unabashedly filled with toilet humor too, much to the amusement of the press. (“The movement is on!” she declared with a cheeky smile. “The pressure is mounting!”)

Toilets weren’t the only thing that got smashed when Fong Eu was an assemblywoman. On one occasion, one of her colleagues had promised to nominate her good friend Willie Brown for speaker, then failed to do so on the day. Fong Eu was so aghast, she physically reacted.

“March Fong Eu stood up and took her handbag and started whacking the guy on his head without saying a word!” Brown relayed to KPIX in 2018. “She didn’t tell me she was going to do it! Nobody understood that she had that potential.”

In the end, it took five years after Fong Eu’s toilet stunt for then-Governor Ronald Reagan to sign legislation banning pay toilets. It is unlikely to have happened at all without Fong Eu loudly bringing the issue to the state’s attention. She used that fact in her 1974 campaign to become Secretary of State. Fong Eu would go on to win, with a record 3.4 million votes. (Four years later, she was so popular, that number had swelled to 4 million.) Fong Eu was the first woman to hold the position and the first Chinese-American elected to a constitutional office in California.

Fong Eu’s fortitude was tested in 1986 when an axe-wielding burglar broke into her home and brutally beat her. She survived by handing over several hundred dollars, but was left with enough cuts and bruises to warrant a hospital stay. Her deputy, Anthony L. Miller. told the press at the time, “She’s a real scrapper and survivor. She feels very lucky to be alive.”

Miller, incidentally, was an openly gay man that Fong Eu hired as Chief Deputy Secretary of State in 1980, saying she didn’t want the support of anyone who might have a problem with Miller’s sexuality. “Things are much different today,” Miller said in 2018, “because of people like March Fong Eu who led the way to tolerance, and acceptance and non-discrimination.”

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ong Eu held onto the position of Secretary of State for almost two decades and, in that time, transformed voting access for Californians. She introduced voter registration by mail, absentee ballots for anyone who requested them (no reason needed), candidate statements on ballot pamphlets and internet reporting of election results.

While in office, Fong Eu pushed for the various divisions of the secretary of state’s office to be consolidated under one roof. The resulting downtown Sacramento building has been named after her since 2019. Fong Eu was also an ardent supporter of the California State Archives — appropriate, given that the archive currently houses 72 boxes of materials related to her.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton named Fong Eu as U.S. Ambassador to Micronesia. She served for two years before resigning to assist in the Clinton-Gore election campaign. Though she never held a prominent office again, Fong Eu never stopped working or pushing for what she felt was right. In the ’90s, she spoke out against prejudice towards Asian-Americans. After the debacle of the 2000 Bush v. Gore election angered her, Fong Eu took an axe to a punchcard voting machine at a Sacramento news conference.

March Fong Eu died in 2017 at the age of 95. Her casket was draped in an American flag and her funeral at Oakland’s Chapel of the Chimes was attended by colleagues and admirers from up and down California. The impact she made is almost impossible to measure — both on the careers of the female politicians coming up behind her and on the everyday lives of regular women statewide.

Perhaps Fong Eu said it best herself, during a 1979 interview with the New York Times: “Not too bad for a lady born behind a Chinese laundry.”

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To learn about other Rebel Girls from Bay Area History, visit the Rebel Girls homepage.

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