March Fong Eu: A groundbreaking voice for all

May 24, 2021Gurudarshan Khalsa

Flyer that reads "I'm for EU...Secretary of State MARCH FONG EU"

Special Collections is pleased to have recently processed March Fong Eu’s archive, and to make available digitized recordings of her personal interview tapes. The papers of March Fong Eu are now open for research. The papers may be accessed in SearchWorks.

March Fong Eu (1922-2017) broke barriers when she stepped into the political arena and fought for gender and racial equality, voter transparency and consumer protection rights, and advocated for California products and services abroad. The child of laundry workers, she was a former US Ambassador, the first female and Chinese-American Secretary of State for 5 terms, a California State Representative for 4 terms, and an Alameda County Board of Education member. March Fong Eu began her career as a dental hygienist who saw the need to do more for her community and became politically involved through her work as president of the American Dental Hygienists Association. Having experienced racial and gender discrimination throughout her life, March Fong Eu fought for those dismissed as “others” because she was one herself.

March Fong Eu was born March Kong on March 29, 1922, in Oakdale, California, in the San Joaquin Valley near Modesto. She was a third-generation Californian and was the youngest of five children. Her parents, Hoy Yuen Kong and Shee Shuey Jue, operated a laundry in Oakdale. The family later moved to San Francisco and then to Richmond. Eu graduated from high school in Richmond and attended the University of California at Berkeley, earning her bachelor's degree in 1943 and became a dental hygienist. She became interested in politics after serving as the President of the American Dental Hygienists Association. She also earned a master of education degree from Mills College in 1947 and a doctorate in education from Stanford in 1954. March Fong Eu was elected to serve on the Alameda County Board of Education from 1954-1964. In 1966 she was elected to the California State Assembly 15th District, serving parts of Oakland and Castro Valley. She was elected as an Assembly Member four times and served from 1966 until 1974. When she was first elected she was one of only three female Assembly Members, including fellow freshman Yvonne Brathwaite Burke. As an Assembly Member, March Fong Eu focused on gender equality, health care, family planning, consumer protections, and the environment. During her time in the Assembly, she was most well-known for her campaign against pay toilets, which she said discriminated against women. To bring attention to this issue she brought a toilet wrapped in chains to the steps of the Capitol and smashed it with a sledgehammer. She later quipped that a vote on a law banning public pay toilets was “along potty lines.”

March Fong Eu, purple campaign flyer titles Meet your assembly woman March Fong

In 1974 she campaigned and won the race for California's Secretary of State. As Secretary of State she advocated for greater transparency and eased voter access by allowing registration by mail as well as no-excuse absentee voting. In 1994 she resigned from the Secretary of State office after being appointed Ambassador to the Federated States of Micronesia by President Bill Clinton. Eu served as Ambassador until 1996 when she resigned to be more involved in the Clinton-Gore re-election campaign. During the 1996 presidential campaign she organized a number of speeches and events to counteract the increased xenophobia towards Chinese and Chinese-Americans, and in 1998 she campaigned for her son Matt Fong, who was the Republican candidate for Senator running as a moderate. March Fong Eu married Chester Fong in 1941. They divorced in 1970 and in 1973 she married Henry Eu, a wealthy businessman from Singapore and Hong Kong. March Fong Eu had two children with Chester Fong: Suyin Stein and Matthew Kipling “Kip” Fong.  March Fong Eu died on December 21, 2017.   

March Fong Eu, red, white and black, campaign flyer titled A Woman at Work

The March Fong Eu collection consists of correspondence, campaign materials, fundraising, campaign finance reports, financial records, flyers, brochures, pamphlets, invitations, schedules, newspaper clippings, memorandums, textbooks, research materials, information about national and international trips, biographical information, photographs, artwork, ephemera, plaques, and awards.

Among some of March Fong Eu’s recorded interviews are those she did in 2003 with her son Matt Fong, a former California State Treasurer. In the interviews, they discuss state politics in the 1970s, and lessons learned, and how she became involved with the civil rights movement. In particular, they discussed the “Dental Hygienists Board” controversy and how very unusual it was at the time—being a Chinese woman—to stand up for African-American professionals in Texas, a position that led to her being censured by her own board. Also poignant are her recollections of being turned away for being Chinese-American when she and first husband Chester Fong sought housing in San Francisco and Oakland as a newly married couple.  

Letter from March Fong Eu to her brother Henry, dated 1928

The month of May has been annually designated by Congress since 1992 as Asian/Pacific American Heritage month. Propelled by pandemic, geopolitics, and recent reckonings, the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community is finding growing strength in its collective voice as it demands greater fairness, acknowledgment, and representation in all arenas. More than just a monolithic block, Asian and Pacific Islander Americans consist of East Asians, South Asians, South East Asians, and Pacific Islanders—representative of over half the world's population. Spanning from recent arrivals—of futuristic super cities, island nations, tropical locales or neighboring borders—to those who helped settle America and serve in its wars since the mid-1800s, and standing at all points along the socio-economic scale, the AAPI community is a diverse group within itself. Let us mark this month by finding commonality in our shared stories and voices, turning away from complacency or ignorance, and remembering those like March Fong Eu who blazed the trail before us and courageously sought equality for all.   

Word cloud showing the words "American", "Asian", and "East Asian" prominently amoung other descriptions.

The collection was processed by Gurudarshan Khalsa, Associate Archivist, who co-wrote this blog together with Esther Wan, who worked as a librarian in various Pacific Rim countries and is now with Stanford's Special Collections & University Archives. 

Gurudarshan KhalsaEsther Wan