My country, the United States, places nowhere near the forefront in giving the right to vote to women. Historically, we lagged far behind.
In the U.S., women couldn’t vote until 1920, twenty-seven years after New Zealand led the world by allowing women’s suffrage in 1893. The USA ranks 12th chronologically in the list of nations that passed laws finally giving women this basic right. Japan, one of the last modern nations to do so, waited until 1947 to ratify the right of women to vote.
The same year American women could legally go to the polls for the first time, Japan enacted Article 5 of the Police Security Regulations, barring women from more than the vote. They were enjoined from belonging to political organizations, and it also became illegal for them to participate in any political meetings.
Haru Hiratsuka, known as Raicho, was born in 1886 in Japan. A free thinker and advocate for the rights of women, Raicho, inspired by her Zen Buddhist faith and influenced by modern European thought and philosophy, began a life of dedication to the rights of women.
After graduation from the Japan Women’s University in 1906 with a home economics degree, rather than be a homemaker, she began her advocacy for Japanese women. In 1911 she began Japan’s first all female literary magazine, Seito, which means Bluestocking, a term that alludes to an educated, intellectual woman—a reference to the 18th-century Blue Stockings Society in England. Around that time she adopted the pen name Raicho, which translates as Thunderbird. She used her publication to thunder against the restraints the paternalistic Japanese society placed on women. Before long Seito focused more and more on women’s issues, daring to discuss topics considered taboo in polite society, some dealing with various aspects of sexuality.
Seito‘s manifesto said in part:
When Japan was born, woman was the sun, the true human being. Now she is the moon! She lives in the light of another star. She is the moon, with a pale face like that of a sickly person …. This is the first cry of the Bluestockings! … We are the mind and the hand of the woman of new Japan. We expose ourselves to men’s laughter, but know that which is hidden under that mockery. Let us reveal our hidden sun, our unrecognized genius! Let it come from behind the clouds! That is the cry of our faith, of our personality, of our instinct, which is the master of all the instinct.
Alarmed by the daring of Seito, the mainstream press spread salacious rumors about the magazine’s writers, decrying their non-conformism. As public opinion began to shift against them, Raicho defended her beliefs in more and more published articles.
Their daring led to state (read: male) censorship against magazines that “disturbed the public order” and spread “Western ideas about women.” One example of Raicho’s “offensive” remarks is this excerpt from a 1913 essay: “I wonder how many women have, for the sake of financial security in their lives, entered into loveless marriages to become one man’s lifelong servant and prostitute?”
Seito suspended its operations in 1915, but not before Raicho became recognized as a leader in the struggle for women’s rights. In 1920 she co-founded the New Women’s Association which helped to overturn the aforementioned Article 5, which forbade women’s involvement in politics. In post-World War II Japan, Raicho became active in the Japanese peace movement.
Raicho continued to write about and promote freedom of expression and choice for women up until her passing in 1971.
The Baha’i teachings praise women like Raicho—advocates for equality and peace—and say that the progress of women and men are inextricably linked. Until women have equal rights, Baha’is believe, society cannot progress. Abdu’l-Baha insisted that:
Women have equal rights with men upon earth; in religion and society they are a very important element. As long as women are prevented from attaining their highest possibilities, so long will men be unable to achieve the greatness which might be theirs. – Paris Talks, p. 133.
In another instance he said:
Not until the world of women becomes equal to the world of men in the acquisition of virtues and perfections, can success and prosperity be attained as they ought to be. – Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 302.
Raicho and her co-activists understood this equal rights imperative, and many of the reforms that have taken place in Japan came about as a result of their determined efforts. She changed the reality of life for Japanese women with her lifelong struggle for equality.