March Fong Eu: AAPI Month Spotlight

by Rachael Deng, #FTP Marketing

This article was originally published at Free the Period.

Credits: California Museum

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM): a time to commemorate the influence of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) in America, and recognize their contributions to the culture, history, and successes of the United States. In honor of APAHM and our dedication to social equality, this article highlights the life and accomplishments of the late March Fong Eu — hailed as a political trailblazer not only for being a Chinese-American and female figure in politics, but also for her role as a pioneer of legal justice and womxn’s rights.

March Fong Eu was the first Asian-American elected to a statewide constitutional office in the United States. Prior to becoming the first Asian and female California Secretary of State in 1974, she served as a Democrat member and the first Asian-American woman in the California State Assembly for four terms, beginning in 1966.

Among her many political achievements, Eu is remembered as a pioneer of advocacy for gender equality. She led a successful statewide campaign to ban pay toilets, arguing that it was discriminatory and unfair for women to pay for a basic service when men’s urinals were free. To symbolically condemn a symbol of female oppression, Eu took a sledgehammer to a chained toilet on the steps of the state Capitol, a moment immortalized in this iconic historical image:

Credits: Walter Zeboski/AP

Simple Yet Diverse Beginnings

Born on March 29, 1922 in the back of her Chinese immigrant parents’ hand laundry in Oakdale, California, March Fong Eu was a third-generation Californian. Her parents eventually relocated the family of six to Richmond and established another laundry. Recalling her childhood in a 1978 oral history interview, Eu noted that growing up in relative poverty fueled her “very strong drive to succeed and also to do some good and help others who may find themselves in the same situation that [she] found myself in.”

Eu understood early on that education was the key to lifting her above her circumstances. A stellar student, Eu went on to earn a B.S. in dentistry from the University of California, Berkeley in 1943, an M.A. from Mills College in 1947, and an Ed.D. from Stanford University in 1954.

Starting her career as a dental hygienist, Eu went on to serve on the Alameda County Board of Education for three terms and was an educational consultant for institutions from the Oakland Public Schools to UCSF. When Eu stepped onto the political scene in the 1950s, there were no Asians holding local or statewide office — yet even though Eu faced discrimination, she saw it as motivation rather than a deterrent.

Eu often referenced the proverb “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” in describing her attitude towards overcoming life’s obstacles. She refused to let common perceptions and stereotypes discourage her, striving to become the confident female who embodied the title of her 1973 speech, “The Self-Sufficient Woman”.

Smashing Toilets, Smashing Barriers

Eu came to public attention with her statewide campaign to ban 10-cent pay toilets in public buildings. Fundamentally a matter of gender fairness, Eu argued that it was highly unfair that “women must pay twice as often as men” for a basic necessity. Although ridiculed by male colleagues for pursuing this cause, Eu persevered in championing equal rights for women. Her toilet-smashing publicity stunt in 1969 drew attention from news outlets across the U.S and struck a chord with voters.

Credits: UC Berkeley Bancroft Library

Leveraging the pay toilet issue in her 1974 contest for Secretary of State, Eu received a record 3.4 million votes — winning by over one million votes, then the highest margin for a state political office. After several failures, the bill to ban public pay toilets was passed and signed by President Reagan in 1974 as well. Speaking to a Times reporter after being elected for her second term in 1979, Eu quipped about her accomplishments:

“Not too bad for a lady born behind a Chinese laundry.”

Through her relentless efforts, Eu broke barriers for women to reach new heights in politics and society. While still an Assemblymember in 1973, Eu delivered an eloquent speech, “The Self-Sufficient Woman”. In one particular excerpt, Eu sharply observed that a majority of men in power were grossly ignorant to women’s concerns, a truth that still stands today:

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.

A Woman Before Her Time: Eu’s Legacy

March Fong Eu was truly a pioneer ahead of her generation, a leader who boldly challenged the status quo with progressive ideas and a desire to represent minorities. A woman of many “firsts”, she is a role model for womxn and Asian Americans, as well as people of color in public service.

Tony Miller, who served as Eu’s chief deputy while she was Secretary of State, recalls initially declining to join forces with Eu in 1980 because he feared his sexual orientation would cause her difficulties. In response, Eu declared: “I want you as my chief deputy and if my so-called friends and my so-called supporters have a problem that you’re gay, I don’t want them as my friends and supporters.”

“Decades before #MeToo and #TimesUp there was March Fong who famously broke toilets for women’s rights and broke barrier after barrier opening doors for women and immigrants. She opened the door for me to serve as the son of Latino immigrants from Mexico as secretary of state.”

- Alex Padilla, California Secretary of State

During her tenure as Secretary of State, Eu worked tirelessly to encourage political participation and fight for equal opportunity. She streamlined voting by introducing mail-in registration, Internet reporting of results, and accessibility reforms. Her efforts to improve efficiency extended beyond her office services, to eliminating barriers to participation throughout the entire electoral system, ensuring elections integrity in California, and countering abuse of power by some notaries. Furthermore, Eu was dedicated to promoting California trade, creating jobs for citizens.

She remained Secretary of State until resigning in early 1994, when she was appointed by President Clinton to become Ambassador to the Federated States of Micronesia.

Eu passed away in 2017 at the age of 95, honored as both a brilliant politician and a loving grandmother known for her lemon meringue pies. Her legacy is one we continue to see and benefit from today.

Originally published at https://medium.com on May 22, 2020.

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Rachael Deng

Rachael Deng

Is loving writing a personality trait?… I'm a designer and startup founder, makeup/skincare junkie, foodie, and published poet! Almost always smiling :)