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OBITUARY: March Fong Eu, Pioneer for Women and Asian Americans in Politics

California Assemblymember March Fong Eu breaks a toilet on the steps of the state Capitol during a protest in an undated photo. (Courtesy of Bancroft Library/UC Berkeley)

Rafu Wire and Staff Reports

March Fong Eu, a pioneering Asian American politician, died on Dec. 21 at the age of 95.

Eu was the first woman to serve as California secretary of state and the first Chinese American to hold statewide office.

The Los Angeles Times quoted Eu’s longtime spokeswoman, Caren Logomarsino, as saying that Eu suffered complications from surgery following a fall at her home in Irvine.

“She was such an exemplary role model and an encouragement for women to break the glass ceiling,” Lagomarsino said.

“Anne and I were saddened to learn of March Fong Eu’s passing,” Gov. Jerry Brown said. “She was a pioneering woman who helped open doors to public service for more women and Asian Americans. On behalf of all Californians, Anne and I express our deepest condolences to March’s family.”

Born March Kong in Oakdale (Stanislaus County) in 1922, Eu grew up while living with her family in the back of a Chinese laundry in San Francisco and later Richmond. A graduate of UC Berkeley, she earned a master’s degree from Mills College in Oakland and a doctorate in education from Stanford University. She worked as a dental hygienist and served as president of the American Dental Hygienists Association. She was also a teacher in Oakland public schools.

Known at the time as March K. Fong, Eu began her political career by serving three terms on the Alameda County Board of Education, then won election to the State Assembly — the first Asian American woman in California to do so — in 1966 and represented the 15th District (Oakland and Castro Valley) until 1974.

March Fong Eu with President Bill Clinton, who named her U.S. ambassador to Micronesia in 1994.

Eu also gained national notoriety for her successful campaign to ban pay toilets from public buildings, which she said symbolized the second-class treatment of women who were forced to fumble for pocket change in their purses just to use a bathroom while there was no such requirement for urinals in men’s facilities. Although she was ridiculed by her male colleagues, Gov. Ronald Reagan signed a bill banning pay toilets in public buildings in 1974.

Eu was elected secretary of state five times, holding the office from 1974 to 1994, and is credited with such innovations as voter registration by mail, providing absentee ballots to anyone who requested them, and including candidate statements in ballot pamphlets.

In 1986, she was beaten and robbed at her Hancock Park residence. The assailant was later captured.

In 1988, Eu sought the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate and would have been the state’s first female senator had she been elected. However, she withdrew because her second husband, Singapore millionaire Henry Eu, did not want to disclose his financial holdings.

She was appointed U.S. ambassador to the Federated States of Micronesia by President Bill Clinton and served from 1994 to 1996.

In 2002, at the age of 79, Eu ran again for secretary of state, saying that she was angered by the voting problems in Florida during the 2000 presidential election, which resulted in Republican George W. Bush’s win over Democrat Al Gore. She narrowly lost in the Democratic primary to Kevin Shelley, who went on to win the general election.

“She was a true trailblazer, from being the first Asian American woman elected to the state Legislature to serving nearly 20 years as California’s first female secretary of state,” current Secretary of State Alex Padilla said. “She was a champion for transparency and increasing voter access to registration and the ballot box. I am proud to build upon her legacy.”

“Today we mourn the loss of March Fong Eu … who broke many glass ceilings during her time in public life,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis, a former U.S. secretary of labor. “For an entire generation of women of color, March Fong Eu inspired many to become involved in shaping the future of our state. California would not be the same without her.”

Services are pending. Eu is survived by her daughter Suyin Stein, four grandchildren and numerous nieces and nephews. Her son, Matthew Fong, who died of cancer in 2011, served as state treasurer from 1994 to 1998. Although she was a Democrat, Eu supported her Republican son’s unsuccessful bid to unseat Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) in 1998.

Current Asian American officeholders cited Eu as a role model.

“March was a trailblazer for Asian Americans and women,” said State Treasurer John Chiang, a candidate for governor. “… She showed me and other Asian Americans that we too could serve our state and nation by entering public office as elected officials and policy makers.

“During her four terms as secretary of state, she served the people of California by making voting easier and more efficient, thus encouraging greater voter participation. Her legacy in California will live on forever.

“I want to thank March Fong Eu for being a role model for me and an inspiration to millions of women and Asian and Pacific Islanders. I will miss her greatly.”

“California has lost a true trailblazer with the departure of the Honorable March Fong Eu,” said State Controller Betty Yee. “Our elections system today reflects many of Secretary Eu’s contributions that include voter registration by mail, absentee ballots upon request, and candidate statements in ballot pamphlets.

“As a State Assembly member, Secretary Eu led the feminist movement in California to ban pay toilets, the subject of many jokes yet the most basic aspect of gender discrimination.

“Her lasting legacy, however, will be how her distinguished service to the people of California inspired women and Asian Americans to pursue public service. Secretary Eu being the first Asian American woman elected to a statewide constitutional office. Thank you, March Fong Eu, and may you rest in peace.”

Assemblymember Phil Ting (D-San Francisco): “Thank you, March Fong Eu, for paving the way for me and so many other Asian American elected officials. I remember seeing her name in the California voter handbook during the first election I was allowed to cast a ballot. She spent her whole career opening doors for others and making sure everyone could exercise their right to vote. I am thankful for her life of public service and know her impact will be felt for years to come.”

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Los Angeles): “March Fong Eu’s legacy of breaking down barriers to public service has had a meaningful and lasting impact on California. Our thoughts are with March’s family and friends during this difficult time.”

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