fbpx
December 12, 2019

Getting Her Elected: March Fong Eu’s Political Agenda

By all accounts, 2019 has been a remarkable year for women in politics.  The Center for American Women in Politics (CAWP) at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University reports record numbers of women elected to U.S. Congress (23.7%), to Statewide Elective office (29.3%), which includes the offices of the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General, and to State Legislatures (28.9%).  These figures cut across party lines, and obscure the record numbers of newly elected officials from racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds (at least among Democratic candidates). However, no matter how deserved the focus on this year’s crop of newly elected officials, it is important to remember that this difficult road to political power was often paved by others. Read on to learn about former California State Assemblywoman and Secretary of State, March Fong Eu.

Collections, , , ,

Getting Her Elected: March Fong Eu’s Political Agenda

By all accounts, 2019 has been a remarkable year for women in politics.  The Center for American Women in Politics (CAWP) at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University reports record numbers of women elected to U.S. Congress (23.7%), to Statewide Elective office (29.3%), which includes the offices of the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General, and to State Legislatures (28.9%)[1].  These figures cut across party lines, and obscure the record numbers of newly elected officials from racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds (at least among Democratic candidates).

However, no matter how deserved the focus on this year’s crop of newly elected officials, it is important to remember that this difficult road to political power was often paved by others. I first learned of March Fong Eu while processing the California Historical Society’s “Portraits” collection – an assortment of photos, dating from the 1860s to the 1980s, featuring portraits of prominent Californians. I came across a fairly recent black and white photographic print of a woman, seated at a table with an open book in front of her, wearing a stylish white dress, her dark hair swept into a 60s-style bouffant.  Written on the back in pencil are the words, “March K. Fong Eu (Democrat), Assemblywoman 15th District, Alameda County.” I was intrigued.

March Fong Eu, circa 1967–1974; Portraits Collection, PC-PT; Box 36, Folder 4; California Historical Society

The CAWP first began collecting data on the subject of female politicians in 1971 – the year that they were founded.[2]  That year, of political positions held by women, only 3% were seats in Congress, 7% were in statewide elective positions, and none (N/A) were serving in state legislatures.[3]  However, five years earlier, in 1966 in California, March Fong Eu – a former dental hygienist and public school teacher from Oakdale – became the first Chinese-American woman in the country elected to the state legislature.[4] The official group photo of the state legislature, taken in 1967, features then-Governor Ronald Reagan seated in the center of a sea of suited men in shades of gray, brown, tan, and navy.  The three women in the photo stand out, wearing large flowers pinned to their dresses, and include March Fong Eu, in an bright yellow dress, Yvonne Braithwaite, the other woman of color elected to the state legislature that year, and Pauline L. Davis, who was the only woman serving in the Assembly from 1961-1966.[5]  Eight years later, in 1974, Fong Eu became the first woman ever to serve as California’s Secretary of State – a position that she held for five terms.  In fact, her long career was marked by a number of firsts, and she was that rare politician that garnered support from both Democrats and Republicans.[6] She even publicly supported her adopted son Matt Fong, a Republican, in his unsuccessful senate run against Barbara Boxer in 1998.[7]

March was one of six children, born March Kong on March 29, 1922 to Hoy Yuen Kong and Shee Shuey Jue, who owned a hand-laundry business in Oakdale, California.[8]  The family later moved to Richmond, California, where March – an excellent student – attended public school. She went on to receive a BS in Dentistry from UC Berkeley, followed by an MA in Education from Mills College, and a PhD in Education from Stanford.[9]  Eu would go on to marry twice – once, in 1941, to Chester Fong, a fellow Berkeley dentistry student, and, later, to Henry Eu, a businessman from Singapore.[10]

Not only was Fong Eu ahead of her time simply by being a woman in politics during a time when that was extremely rare, but she introduced legislation that feels particularly relevant today.  She made voting easier by allowing registration by mail, allowing voters to register at the Department of Motor Vehicles, and insisting that absentee ballots be made widely available.  She also initiated the practice of including candidate biographies on ballot pamphlets. Her most well-known piece of legislation had to do with the practice of charging women $.10 to use public toilets, which she argued was discriminatory since urinals were free.  During a protest on the steps of the State Capitol building in 1969, Fong Eu used a sledgehammer to smash a toilet in chains – a dramatic gesture in response to what was then a potent symbol of female oppression.[11] I enjoyed studying the faces of onlookers at this event, captured in a black and white photograph – some gleeful, some concerned.  A man in the front row holds a protest sign that reads “Ten Cents?” Though ridiculed for championing this particular cause, Fong Eu was relentless in her pursuit of equal rights for women, and the ban on pay toilets was finally signed by Reagan in 1974, after several unsuccessful attempts to pass the bill.[12]

She was also a strong advocate for establishing the State Archives – a division of the Office of Secretary of State – and hoped to see all of the divisions of the Secretary of State’s office under one roof. Caren Daniels Lagomarsino, Eu’s former press spokesperson, said, “She had a special fondness for the state archives. That’s where all this rich history is stored and is accessible to the public. You can find all the legislative history of all the bills passed; you can see what the legislative intent was. There are census reports, trademarks and a wide variety of information.”[13] This past March, the centralized State Archives facility at 1500 11th Street in Sacramento, built in 1995 with funding secured by Fong Eu, was renamed The March Fong Eu Secretary of State Building.

Though CHS’s offerings on the subject of Fong Eu are small, a substantial body of archival material exists elsewhere, including the California State Archives, whose recent online exhibit, “Leading the Way: March Fong Eu and a Lifetime of Service,” was extremely helpful in the writing of this article.  Fong Eu was also the subject of a lengthy oral history interview conducted in 1976-1977 by the Oral History Center at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. The transcript for this interview (“March Fong Eu: High Achieving Non-Conformist”) is available online.  She also wrote a book, A History of the California Initiative Process (1979), and wrote the foreword to Getting Her Elected: A Political Woman’s Handbook (1977) by Suzanne Paizis – a timely book that can be found in CHS’s book collection.

It feels right that a new era of women in government should pay homage to leaders like March Fong Eu.  She was aware of her role model status, and spoke to this fact in her 1987 inauguration speech: “Eu recounted a young Asian-American girl who told her that when she grew up, she was going to be the Secretary of State, just like Eu, to which Eu remarked, ‘Run for President, the pay is better.’[14]

[1] “Women in Elective Office in 2019,” Center for American Women in Politics, accessed July 29, 2019, https://www.cawp.rutgers.edu/women-elective-office-2019.

[2] “About CAWP,” Center for American Women in Politics, accessed July 29, 2019, https://www.cawp.rutgers.edu/about_cawp/history-and-mission.

[3] Women in Elective Office in 2019,” Center for American Women in Politics, accessed July 29, 2019, https://www.cawp.rutgers.edu/women-elective-office-2019.

[4] Lisa C. Prince, “Leading the Way: March Fong Eu and a Lifetime of Service,” California State Archives online exhibit, accessed July 29, 2019, https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/LAJyVTUYInY2IQ.

[5] Lisa C. Prince, “Leading the Way: March Fong Eu and a Lifetime of Service,” California State Archives online exhibit, accessed July 29, 2019, https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/LAJyVTUYInY2IQ.

[6] John Hickey, “Sacramento to name state building after Berkeley’s March Fong Eu,” Berkeley News, March 22, 2019, accessed July 29, 2019, https://news.berkeley.edu/2019/03/22/sacramento-set-to-name-secretary-of-state-building-after-berkeleys-march-fong-eu/.

[7] Claudia Luther, “March Fong Eu, pioneering Asian American politician who was longtime California secretary of state, dies at 95,” Los Angeles Times, December 22, 2017, accessed July 29, 2019, https://www.latimes.com/local/obituaries/la-me-march-fong-eu-20171222-story.html.

[8] Lisa C. Prince, “Leading the Way: March Fong Eu and a Lifetime of Service,” California State Archives online exhibit, accessed July 29, 2019, https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/LAJyVTUYInY2IQ.

[9] Todd Holmes, “From the Archives: March Fong Eu, Pioneering Woman in California Politics,” Berkeley Library Update, June 8, 2016, accessed July 29, 2019, https://update.lib.berkeley.edu/2016/06/08/from-the-archives-march-fong-eu-pioneering-woman-in-california-politics/.

[10] Lisa C. Prince, “Leading the Way: March Fong Eu and a Lifetime of Service,” California State Archives online exhibit, accessed July 29, 2019, https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/LAJyVTUYInY2IQ.

[11] John Hickey, “Sacramento to name state building after Berkeley’s March Fong Eu,” Berkeley News, March 22, 2019, accessed July 29, 2019, https://news.berkeley.edu/2019/03/22/sacramento-set-to-name-secretary-of-state-building-after-berkeleys-march-fong-eu/.

[12] John Wildermuth, “March Fong Eu, who smashed toilets and barriers, dies at 95,” SFGate, December 22, 2017, accessed July 29, 2019, https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/March-Fong-Eu-who-smashed-toilets-and-barriers-12451437.php.

[13] John Hickey, “Sacramento to name state building after Berkeley’s March Fong Eu,” Berkeley News, March 22, 2019, accessed July 29, 2019, https://news.berkeley.edu/2019/03/22/sacramento-set-to-name-secretary-of-state-building-after-berkeleys-march-fong-eu/.

[14] Lisa C. Prince, “Leading the Way: March Fong Eu and a Lifetime of Service,” California State Archives online exhibit, accessed July 29, 2019, https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/LAJyVTUYInY2IQ.

Bibliography:

Center for American Women in Politics. “About CAWP.” Accessed July 29, 2019, https://www.cawp.rutgers.edu/about_cawp/history-and-mission.

Center for American Women in Politics. “Women in Elective Office in 2019.” Accessed July 29, 2019, https://www.cawp.rutgers.edu/women-elective-office-2019.

Hickey, John. “Sacramento to name state building after Berkeley’s March Fong Eu.” Berkeley News, March 22, 2019, accessed July 29, 2019, https://news.berkeley.edu/2019/03/22/sacramento-set-to-name-secretary-of-state-building-after-berkeleys-march-fong-eu/.

Holmes, Todd. “From the Archives: March Fong Eu, Pioneering Woman in California Politics.” Berkeley Library Update, June 8, 2016, accessed July 29, 2019, https://update.lib.berkeley.edu/2016/06/08/from-the-archives-march-fong-eu-pioneering-woman-in-california-politics/.

Luther, Claudia. “March Fong Eu, pioneering Asian American politician who was longtime California secretary of state, dies at 95.” Los Angeles Times, December 22, 2017, accessed July 29, 2019, https://www.latimes.com/local/obituaries/la-me-march-fong-eu-20171222-story.html.

Prince, Lisa C. “Leading the Way: March Fong Eu and a Lifetime of Service.” California State Archives online exhibit, accessed July 29, 2019, https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/LAJyVTUYInY2IQ.

Wildermuth, John. “March Fong Eu, who smashed toilets and barriers, dies at 95.” SFGate, December 22, 2017, Accessed July 29, 2019, https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/March-Fong-Eu-who-smashed-toilets-and-barriers-12451437.php.