March Fong Eu and a Lifetime of Service
As we celebrate National Women's History Month, with its theme, "Working to Form a More Perfect Union: Honoring Women in Public Service and Government," we commemorate political trailblazer, March Fong Eu, who passed away on December 21, 2017.
March Fong Eu broke many barriers in her long career in public service, from being the first woman to serve as division chair of the University of California San Francisco's Dental Hygiene Department in 1951, to being the first woman and first Asian-American elected to the Alameda County Board of Education and serving as its president from 1961-1962.
March Fong Eu was also the first Asian-American woman elected to the state legislature in 1966, and the first woman elected as California's Secretary of State in 1974, as well as the first Asian-American to be elected to a statewide constitutional office.
On July 14, 1976, she became the first woman and Asian-American to serve as acting-Governor of California, when all other officials in the order of succession were out of state.
In all her public life, March Fong Eu served as a citizen's advocate, speaking out on issues from consumer rights to human rights. One of her signature accomplishments was getting the state legislature to approve and fund a new Secretary of State/California Archives and Museum complex in downtown Sacramento, which was completed in 1995. The Secretary of State Complex will be renamed in her honor in 2019.
A third-generation Californian, March Kong was born on March 29, 1922, in the small San Joaquin Valley town of Oakdale, California.
Born in the back of the hand-laundry where her parents, Hoy Yuen Kong and Shee Shuey Jue, worked seven days a week to support a family of six, March grew up knowing she wanted more from life.
The Kong family soon moved to Richmond, California, where they established another hand-laundry and continued to live in the residence behind it. March recalled years later that her family's circumstances instilled in her a strong drive to succeed and to help others in similar situations.
Recognizing that education would help propel her out of poverty, March Kong excelled at the public schools she attended in Richmond, then went on to earn a bachelor of science degree from University of California at Berkeley, a masters degree in education from Mills College, and a doctorate in education from Stanford University.
Pictured is a photograph of the laundry in Oakdale where March Fong Eu was told she was born, along with photographs of March as a young girl.
In 1941 March Kong married Chester Fong, a fellow dentistry student at UC Berkeley, and was known in her early career as March K. Fong. The Fongs lived in Oakland, where they raised two children, Matthew Kipling Fong, and Suyin Fong.
After earning her doctorate in education, Dr. March K. Fong served as the first Asian-American and the first female Chair of the Department of Dental Hygiene at the University of California, San Francisco. She also worked as the first dental hygienist for Alameda County schools and was an active member of the American Dental Hygienists Association where she served as its president from 1956-1957.
In 1956, Dr. Fong was elected to the Alameda County Board of Education, where she served as its president from 1961-1962. During this period, Dr. Fong served as an advocate and legislative and educational consultant for several Bay Area school districts and county boards of education.
Pictured here is a program for a recognition dinner for Dr. March Fong held during her last year as a member of the Alameda County Board of Education, and a photograph of Dr. March Fong and Francis Dunn, California State Chief of Housing, at a luncheon in Pleasanton in 1964.
March K. Fong soon set her sights on running for a seat in the California State Assembly. In 1966, she ran as a Democrat and was elected to Assembly District 15 to represent Oakland and parts of Castro Valley.
March K. Fong was the first Asian-American woman to be elected to the State Assembly, and one of only three woman serving in the Legislature at that time. She was reelected every two years with ever-increasing majorities, winning with 78% of the vote in 1972, the last year she ran for the Assembly seat.
Pictured here is March K. Fong with Assembly members John Burton (left), and Willie Brown, at a 1966 campaign event, and two campaign mailers for her first campaign.
Seen here is the official group photograph of members of the 1967 California Legislature. In the center is Governor Ronald Reagan, flanked by Jesse Unruh, the Speaker of the Assembly on the left, and Hugh Burns, President Pro Tempore of the Senate on the right.
Seated fifth and sixth from the left are new Assembly members, March K. Fong, and Yvonne W. Brathwaite, the first two women of color elected to the legislative body. Seated to the right of Brathwaite is Pauline L. Davis, who served in the Assembly from 1952 to 1976, and who, from 1961 to 1966, was its sole female member until the elections of both Fong and Brathwaite.
During her tenure in the State Assembly, March Fong worked tirelessly on issues related to education, preserving the environment, consumer protections, and protecting the rights of women and minority citizens.
One of her most publicized legislative acts was to author a bill to ban pay toilets for women in publicly-funded buildings in 1969. Fong stressed that it was unfair for women to have to pay when men's urinals were free. During a publicity event to garner support for her bill, she had a toilet wrapped in chains set up on the steps of the capitol, which she shattered by taking a sledgehammer to it.
Through several legislative sessions, Fong's bill was heard but died in committee until it finally passed as Assembly Bill 1650 (pictured), Chapter 1349, statutes of 1974.
As a member of the State Assembly from 1967 to 1974, March Fong served on a variety of committees and authored over 400 bills relating to education, public health, consumer affairs, pesticide safety, family planning, environmental protection, and tax reform.
She served as the Chair of the following Assembly committees:
1969: Sub-Committee on Vocational and Technical Training
1971-1972: Committee on Environmental Quality
1973-1974: Committee on Employment and Public Employees
1973-1974: Select Committee on Agriculture, Food and Nutrition
And as Vice-Chair for the Committee on Revenue and Taxation from 1967-1968.
Pictured is a campaign mailer for her 1968 re-election campaign, which illustrates "A busy day in the life of a busy legislator."
In addition to March K. Fong's responsibilities as a state legislator, she was also involved with the state and national Democratic Party, supporting and campaigning with fellow candidates.
In the summer of 1967, New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy attended a dinner in San Francisco where he met with state legislators, including March K. Fong. Pictured is his letter to Fong expressing his hopes to return soon and a photograph of him with a smiling March K. Fong.
Kennedy would return to California in 1968 to campaign to be the Democratic Party's nominee for U.S. President. Tragically, he was assassinated shortly after winning the California Primary on June 5th. Not only did the country lose a promising leader, Kennedy's death also threw the Democratic Party's selection of its nominee into chaotic disunity.
Later that year, March K. Fong, attended the Democratic convention in Chicago as a member of the California Delegation. Amidst the mayhem that attended the convention - when Mayor Daly called on National Guard troops to assist with violent clashes between the city's police and anti-war protesters - the Democratic Party delegates voted Hubert Humphrey in as the party's nominee.
After four terms in the State Assembly, March K. Fong ran a winning campaign for the office of Secretary of State becoming the first Asian-American woman in the country to be elected to a statewide constitutional office.
By this time, she had married her second husband, Henry Eu, a businessman from Singapore, and was thereafter known as March Fong Eu.
Eventually serving more than four terms as Secretary of State, Eu worked tirelessly to modernize the office and improve its services. As the state's chief elections officer, she successfully sponsored legislation to increase and simplify voter participation. She cracked down on notary public abuse and implemented automated systems for corporate and uniform commercial code filings.
Eu was a strong advocate for the State Archives, a division of the Office of Secretary of State, recognizing the importance of preserving the state's historical records.
Eu oversaw the Political Reform Division, created by initiative in 1974 which required candidates, campaign committees, and lobbyists to file all campaign-related expenditures and contributions.
She also regularly promoted the export of California products, chairing the California State World Trade Commission from 1983 -1986.
During her inauguration speech in 1987, 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." Eu claimed that the hope, promise and commitment expressed by that young girl was one of the high points of her career in public service.
As California's chief elections officer, Secretary of State March Fong Eu was responsible for providing technical information and legal opinions to the public, the legislature, and local elections officers regarding election laws and procedures. She also supervised the state's voter registration and election system and compiled vote results for state-certified candidates and ballot measures for each election.
During her tenure, Eu advocated for increased voter education and participation. She implemented innovative measures such as expanded voter registration drives, voter registration by mail, at-large absentee balloting, and the inclusion of candidate statements in ballot pamphlets.
Pictured from left to right: Secretary Eu overseeing the computerized vote totals in 1978; a Voting Information Guide for California's elderly and physically-challenged voters; and March Fong Eu standing next to the "California Votemobile," used for voter registration drives.
Secretary Eu also worked with federal voting programs to increase voter participation.
Pictured is a certificate and letter from the Director of the Federal Voting Assistance Program, Henry Valentino, to Secretary March Fong Eu, for her outstanding support and participation in the program.
The Federal Voting Assistance Program was established to ensure that all U.S. Military members, their eligible family members, and overseas citizens receive educational materials about voter rights, and have access to tools and resources to successfully vote from anywhere in the world where they are stationed.
Administered by the Department of Defense, in addition to working with state election officials, the national voting program also assists voters through partnerships with Military Services, the Department of State, and Department of Justice.
The first law passed by the 1850 state legislature established the Public Archives in the office of the Secretary of State as the repository of the state's historical documents. For many years, the Public Archives were located in a vault in the capitol building's office of the Secretary of State, as demanded by law.
In the 1930s, the Secretary of State began transferring the overflow of records to a warehouse in Sacramento. And in 1955, as the amount of records grew, the Archives were moved to a section of the State Printing Plant building in downtown, Sacramento (bottom photograph). The move was an improvement in terms of storage space and the establishment of a research room, but it was not designed for long-term storage of the state's documentary heritage.
Finally, in 1989, the state legislature approved Senate Bill 638 (pictured), which funded the building of the current Secretary of State and California State Archives complex. Secretary Eu sponsored the legislation, which had been a priority for her since her first term as Secretary in 1975. She is seen here (top photograph) at the groundbreaking ceremony in 1992.
Since her first term, Secretary of State March Fong Eu had been advocating for an improved facility to house the state's Public Archives. At the same time, she expressed her desire for a California History Museum, to showcase the state's historical heritage.
Eu worked with legislators to assess the needs, cost, and location of a new Archives facility. With the passing of Senate Bill 638, the new Secretary of State California State Archives complex became a reality.
Pictured is the new state-of-the-art building, completed in 1995, which featured security and environmental protections for the Archives. It also included a California History Museum and centralized the office of the Secretary of State, whose various divisions had for some time been located in in separate buildings in Sacramento. The complex is now renamed the March Fong Eu Building in her honor.
As Secretary of State, March Fong Eu also viewed her position as an ambassador for the state. This notion was formalized when Governor Jerry Brown appointed Eu the Chief of Protocol for California in 1975. The governor stipulated that as Chief of Protocol, Eu would represent the governor and the people of California at state functions hosted by or for foreign dignitaries.
For Eu, the role more importantly included her acting as liaison between the governor and the interests and concerns of the state's Consular Corps, which at the time was comprised of about 125 officials representing sixty foreign countries.
Eu saw herself as California's public relations advocate for expanding international trade. She believed that expanded international trade and foreign investment in the state would create jobs, and greatly improve the existing poor export market for California commodities.
In 1982, the legislature recognized that the expansion of international trade and tourism was vital to the overall growth of California's economy and created in the Governor's office a California State World Trade Commission. March Fong Eu was appointed chair of the commission from 1983 through 1986, successfully promoting the export of California agricultural and industrial products.
Pictured is a promotional brochure for California wines, the directory for the California Agricultural Promotion Council (C.A.P.CO.), and a photograph of a 1980 visit by Eu, California wine growers, and C.A.P.CO. representatives on a trip to Hong Kong, Manila, Taipei, and Seoul in 1980.
Throughout March Fong Eu's long career in public service, she often supported and met with state and national Democratic candidates.
Pictured here, clockwise from top left:
Secretary of State March Fong Eu, with Governor Jerry Brown, Vice Presidential candidate Walter Mondale, and others at a campaign stop in 1976. In his first bid for the presidency that year, Brown had lost the primary to the eventual Democratic nominee, Jimmy Carter.
Secretary of State March Fong Eu is seen greeting presidential candidate, Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalyn Carter, on a visit to California in 1976.
U.S. Representative, Maxine Waters; former state legislator, U.S. Representative, and Los Angeles County Supervisor, Yvonne Brathwaite Burke; Los Angeles County Supervisor, Kenneth Hahn (seated); presidential candidate, Bill Clinton; Secretary of State March Fong Eu; and others at a Welcome Clinton Day event on October 5, 1992.
Former State Senator and Los Angeles City Councilman, Nate Holden; former San Francisco Mayor and future U.S. Senator, Diane Feinstein; Secretary of State March Fong Eu; and others greeting Los Angeles County Supervisor, Kenneth Hahn, at a press conference at Los Angeles airport, 1990.
After serving for two decades as California's Secretary of State, March Fong Eu resigned from the office in 1994 to serve as United States Ambassador to the Federated States of Micronesia at the request of President Bill Clinton. Eu served in the post for two years.
Pictured are Secretary Eu with President Bill Clinton at an unknown location, c. 1994; and a brochure welcoming visitors to a special event in Pohnpei, Micronesia, where March Fong Eu served as U.S. Ambassador, c. 1995.
After March Fong Eu completed her ambassadorship at the end of 1996 she returned to California.
Throughout her life and career, March Fong Eu won numerous awards and was honored on many occasions as this example shows.
On September 21, 1996, the Chinese Americans United for Self Empowerment (CAUSE) honored Eu and presented her with their Citizen of the Year award for her outstanding record of achievement and contribution to the world community.
Pictured here are two letters congratulating Eu for her recognition as CAUSE Citizen of the Year from California Governor Pete Wilson, and U.S. Representative from California, Jay Kim.
Matthew "Kip" Fong, California State Treasurer and son of March Fong Eu, honored his mother on September 21, 1996 with this resolution. The resolution listed Eu's experiences as Ambassador to the Federated States of Micronesia, and noted that she was a woman of many titles such as Ambassador, Secretary of State, and her Excellency, concluding,
"Now, therefore be it resolved, that I, Matt Fong, Treasurer of the State of California, exercise my constitutional authority vested in me, to forego the formalities, and just address her as "Mom," and convey my love and respect to her for her many years as a distinguished public servant, statesman, and just simply as my mother."
Matthew Kip Fong died of cancer in 2011.
In her retirement, Eu continued efforts to promote California trade, to encourage participation in the political process, and to advocate equal opportunity for all people.
March Fong Eu was also an accomplished painter and studied the art of calligraphy, to which she devoted much of her time in her remaining years. Pictured here is a brochure cover for the Yuen Kong Foundation Annual Awards Banquet, featuring one of Eu's landscape paintings.
The Yuen Kong Foundation was incorporated as the March Fong Eu Foundation in 1986, and renamed after Eu's father, Yuen Kong, in 1992. During its existence, the non-profit foundation provided grants to students to further their education in the study of a foreign language.
March Fong Eu passed away on December 21, 2017, at the age of 95. Caren Daniels-Lagomarsino, Eu's longtime spokeswomen, stated after Eu's passing, "She will be missed. She was such a ground-breaker. She was self-made. She went about quietly breaking barriers right and left. It was just remarkable."
In 1973, Eu gave a talk about her groundbreaking career as a Chinese-American woman in politics, titled, "The Self-Sufficient Woman." She argued that women needed to be much more actively involved in politics or male lawmakers would continue to make all decisions about women's reproductive rights, how they were treated after sexual assaults, equal pay, and many other issues important to women. She concluded her talk with these words:
"... 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 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 society will be much better when we put our self-sufficiency in action."
Pictured is Ambassador March Fong Eu posing with visitors to the Federated States of Micronesia in 1995.
All images from records of the California State Archives, unless otherwise noted.
Curation of exhibit by Lisa C. Prince (2019)
Digital adaptation by Lisa C. Prince (2019)
Imaging by Lisa C. Prince, Thaddeus McCurry and Brian Guido (2018-2019)
Editing by Nancy Lenoil and Tamara Martin
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