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March Fong Eu: 'The Self-Sufficient Woman'

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March Fong Eu during her nearly 20-year tenure as California secretary of state. (Courtesy of Caren Lagomarsino)

In February 1973, Foothill College in Los Alto invited then-Assemblymember March K. Fong to give a talk about her groundbreaking career as a Chinese-American woman in politics. Her remarks, titled "The Self-Sufficient Woman," showcased an irreverent wit and an even sharper concern that the overwhelming majority of white men in power simply didn't get women's concerns.

Women would need to become much more actively involved in politics, Eu said, before male lawmakers would act on issues like reproductive rights, the degrading treatment women suffered after sexual assaults, and even their ability to be formally addressed as "Ms."

"If those men are to represent the majority of their constituencies ably," she said, "they are going to have to have some remedial education."

Her remarks continue to resonate at a moment when the climate of sexual harassment against women in the state Capitol has emerged as an urgent issue and prompted the resignation of several male lawmakers.

"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," Eu told her audience. "I guess what I am saying is that I believe it is about time that some men need to do some honest rethinking about their perspective and prejudices.

Sponsored

“The Self-Sufficient Woman”
February 22, 1973
Foothill College
Los Altos Hills, California

Source: “March Fong Eu: High-Achieving Nonconformist in Local and State Government”
Regional Oral History Office, California Women Political Leaders Project
The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

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am happy to be here tonight to discuss matters of mutual concern and interest. It is timely that the title of your continuing series of presentations is "the self-sufficient woman."

I say this because if there is one field where women must be especially self-sufficient, it is politics. I say this not only because I could cite statistic after statistic about the small number of women in elected offices. I say this not only because I could talk about the virtual void of women in higher political administrative positions.

I was tempted to ask someone to flash the picture of the Nixon cabinet which appeared in yesterday's papers. Rarely could you find a more charming group of short-haired, white-faced men over 50 anywhere. Looking at that picture makes me really miss Martha Mitchell's role in public life.

But my saying women have to be especially self-sufficient in politics has to do with a kind of "seriousness syndrome" which is part of the double standard in politics.

To be taken seriously in Sacramento, people like Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, Pauline Davis and myself have had to work twice as hard as my colleagues.

We really have to do our homework, for some of our colleagues delight in baiting us and finding that we might not have one fact at out fingertips.

Related to this is a rather strange resentment of our having fun.

I believe politics should be fun, and I like to have some. As David Halberstam has so eloquently pointed out recently, much of the foreign policy crisis of the '60s can be psychologically related to the dead seriousness of men who were so impressed with their own computer-type minds that they couldn't perceive human concerns and frailties.

But when women have fun, there seems to be a massive male overreaction. When one burning took place of a uniquely female garment of support, all of a sudden all women seeking legal justice and social equality were frivolous, crazy bra-burners.

If I may speak jocularly, I wonder if someone revolting against the rather unusual athletic mystique in 'this country were to burn a uniquely male garment of support, whether there might be a similar reaction:

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ome people just can't see where fun and seriousness intersect. Their favorite word is frivolous.

If I may, i'd like to discuss two pieces of legislation on which I have had to face a glib dismissal as being frivolous. One had to do with pay toilets. I had fun with that bill. Some people apparently couldn't stand that fact. But it was a serious issue, both practically and symbolically. In this audience, I probably need not discuss the distress women have experienced with dime-lessness. I still get a few letters each week on someone's misfortune, even though I have not carried legislation on that subject for four years.

But some men would rather dismiss such concerns as frivolous rather than listen.

I have been seriously tempted, in the spirit of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment and in the spirit of the equal rights amendment, to author a bill to require those facilities which have pay toilets for women to have pay urinals as well as toilets for men. After all, we pay all the time, while they pay only half the time. And that's symbolic of a lot of things in our society.

Another bill often dismissed as frivolous had to do with the prefix "Ms."

As you might know, Senator Mervyn Dymally had a bill last year, SB 150, which would allow women to register to vote as "Ms." In itself, it's not crucially important. But it's symbolically quite important.

I was the floor manager for him on this bill on the Assembly side. On the day it was brought up it failed to get the vote it needed. In my presentation of the bill I accurately described it as being of considerable interest and symbolical importance to the majority of the people of the state. I questioned the relevance of a women's present or former marital status to her right to register to vote. I was even ready to admit that there might be some secret relevance to such a thing.

I asked that it be pointed out to me and said that, if I were convinced, then a man's present or past marital status should also be revealed when he registers. I even suggested a prefix for presently or formerly married men.

The prefix is “Mrmr” -- I would pronounce it "murmur," since the heart is involved.

But, the real underlying problem with the bill was that many men in the Assembly just didn't realize its significance. They couldn't understand why it is important to many women that the law requires identification of marital status for women before they can vote, just as they cannot seem to understand a woman's point of view concerning laws related to pregnancy and contraception, or community property or the humiliating evidence procedures in rape cases.

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aybe if some men would also have to reveal their present or former marital status to people who have no business knowing, they would understand a little better a woman's concern about this discriminatory requirement.

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.

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.

I guess what I am saying is that I believe it is about time that some men need to do some honest rethinking about their perspective and prejudices.

Being one of only two women in the California Legislature, in the last six years I have been in a good position to see the emerging political activism of women, and I am delighted by it. And I suspect it was for this reason I am invited here to talk to a group of women -- about women.

I am told by people in the Capitol post office that I get more mail than any other legislator. I often wondered why until I realized that -- though I represent a single East Bay Assembly district -- I have a statewide constituency of people who identify with me. Some because I come from a minority background. And some because I am of a majority gender.

I am confident that the two constituencies for whom I have become something of a symbol will continue to grow in power and influence so that no longer will they feel that they are being constantly white-maled.

I applaud the seriousness and skill women are showing in converting genuine concerns into concerted action. I urge you to continue to communicate with those of us in sympathy with the women's movement about how your concerns can be dealt with legislatively.

To be specific, let me tell you about a piece of legislation I am considering which would have broad impact qn California life. I am considering introducing legislation which would require equal representation of the sexes on either all or certain state boards and commissions.

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ome would scoff at this by saying we'd be adding a few ‘Miss Quotas’ to be with ‘Miss Token,’ but I think they are mistaken.

At first glance, many might wonder about the desirability of having many women on the agriculture board. They might ask how many women farmers there are anyway? But we must get beyond such an initial response. Some of the major food and environmental problems in the
state are due to the fact that producer and distributor interests have dominated the regulation of agriculture. Consumers have hardly had a voice. Equal representation of women should change that.

In the past few years, I have become greatly interested in matters which traditionally have been regarded as "agricultural." That is partly a result, I suppose, of chairing the committee through which all pesticide legislation had to pass on the Assembly side. In any event, I have come to a conclusion which is not universally shared by my colleagues or by the public. I think that agriculture is just as much an "urban" problem as a "rural" one. Nutrition is probably more of an "urban" problem than a "rural" one. Agricultural legislation is just as important to the urban consumer as it is to the rural producer.

For better or worse, what happens in agriculture probably has more of an impact on the environment of this state than what happens in any other industry.

Some of my concerns here resulted in my being appointed last week by Speaker Moretti to be the chairman of a select Committee on Food, Nutrition and Agriculture. This committee, which includes the chairmen of the committees on Ways and Means, Welfare, Health and Agriculture, will try to study those problems in depth and propose appropriate legislation.

Similarly, professions such as architecture would not be so male-dominated if the very powerful board which oversees it had significant female representation.

I am suggesting a new idea which I am sure will meet with some opposition and as concerned women, I am interested in your comments and reactions to this proposal, and hopefully, should you agree, support in this area.

In the context of wanting to continue to be frank with you, I wish to make a comment on something in the woman's movement which has disturbed me. That is the mentality which says "support women candidates -- support any women candidates. " I suppose this means supporting wives of southern governors when their terms end and they cannot succeed themselves. This is a mentality which racial minorities have gone through and have learned about already.

To illustrate what I mean -- of the 15 minority members in the Legislature, only 5 represent districts in which their people are in the majority. My district is less than 2 percent Asian in composition.

There are some men who would do more for women's issues and related issues regarding civil rights and justice than certain women, so I am saying do not push -- and I hope you do not push -- the type of mentality which would mean that the Willie Browns or John Millers ( two of our leading black legislators) shouldn't be in the Legislature -- because they really do not reflect the majority racial makeup in their districts. The mentality that "support women candidates" any woman candidate should be carefully used and certainly not exploited to the detriment of our cause.

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n recent years we have witnessed a phenomenon unparalleled in our political history. Each year, more and more women are running -- and more importantly - being elected to local, state and federal positions. You can check the current issue of Ms. to see the progress (and problems) in this area.

The reasons for this trend are simple. Society is now able to recognize the fact that some women also possess the expertise needed to enter the political arena. With this, the notion of "a woman's place is in the home -- or the oven" is ending.

The future of women in government is indeed a bright one. Perhaps the best illustration of this can be found in the field of consumer and environmental protection. Without question, women have for many years been the leading proponents of consumer protection.

The history of major consumer protection laws reveals that many of them were initiated by women. Such federal laws as the Pure Foods and Drug Act, Flammable Fabrics Act and the Meat Inspection Act are just a few of the major consumer protection laws initiated, and in some
cases, drafted by women.

Today, more than ever, women remain a potent force within the consumer movement. But women should not be trapped into a "women's issue" game. Women in politics should concern themselves with the whole gamut of human affairs. And a big part of that way will consist of educating men.

We have one hundred and twenty legislators in the Capitol. One hundred and eighteen are men.

If those men are to represent the majority of their constituencies ably, they are going to have to have some remedial education. Some of them just do not and apparently cannot take women seriously. Others seem to hop on women's rights bandwagons because it's the "in" thing right now. Giving lip service to the women's movement is politically advantageous - no one wants to be called a "sexist" any more than he wants to be called a "racist.” Whether or not one wants to be called either has no relation to what one ' s real attitudes are .

I will respectfully suggest that if we want real justice in this country , white male politicians are going to have to stop playing "let's pretend" and begin the serious business of "show and tell." Else the polls might "show and tell" some new and interesting results.

A woman's role in politics in this country and state has never been simple to define. Far easier would be a discussion of the black's role in politics, or the Chicano's role, or the Jewish role. It is a relatively routine matter to assess the nature and status of a particular group which is identified as both an ethnic group and as a minority group. Far harder is a similar assessment of women, because women constitute the only numerically superior "oppressed" group in the state or country.

There are one-half million more women eligible to vote in California than men. While women currently outnumber men in the population, on both a state and national basis, their failure to use their vote converts them into a minority. Statistical records are rarely kept in forms that give breakdowns of voting by sex, but those that exist show Women's rates of participation to be lower than men's.

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any women still believe that politics is simply none of their business. And when it comes to the fortunes of women in the Legislature, that belief has a terrific negative impact.

The impact is not personally felt by the three women who have held seats recently in the Legislature. it can be readily demonstrated that our records have been better than average, our election margins have been far better than average, and our respective committee responsibilities have been considerably more important than average.

But the negative impact is felt when it comes to the fortunes of legislation of specific interest to women.

The California Commission on the Status of Women has singled out the three greatest problems that face women in today's society. Those problems are child care, a lack of confidence in their own abilities, and subtle and largely unrecognized social, economic, and political discriminations.

Every year, legislation to confront these problems is introduced, and every year it is defeated somewhere in the route of two-way mirrors and trap doors of the legislative maze and executive strainer. Very simple proposals -- such as my bill to permit women to hold liquor licenses in their own names.

Very simple proposals face an extraordinarily difficult time. Despite what I identify needs to be, despite what you think needs to be, despite what the Commission on the Status of Women thinks needs to be, the fact is that most of my male colleagues do not recognize or acknowledge those needs because of the indifference of the vast majority of women in their districts.

The point is, and it cannot be over-emphasized, the point is that women's legislation does not fare well in the Legislature. It never has and it never will until enough women on a large scale either hold political office or effectively impress the males who do, that they are a political force to be reckoned with. That proposition will have ample opportunity to be tested again this year.

I am pleased for the opportunity to share some of my perceptions, some of my observations, and some of my activities.

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

Let us dissolve the misperception of considering the world to be like the setting for a John Wayne western. Let us hope that more men will begin to listen. Let us hope more men will respond. But more men will listen only if we speak clearly. And more men will listen if we speak intelligently. More men will listen as more women believe in themselves and the cause they are fighting for.

Our whole society will be much better when we put our self-sufficiency in action.

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