Weed, Ethel (1906–1975)

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Weed, Ethel (1906–1975)

American military officer who promoted Japanese women's rights during the U.S. occupation of Japan after World War II. Name variations: Ethel Berenice Weed. Born on May 11, 1906, in Syracuse, New York; died of cancer on June 6, 1975, in Newton, Connecticut; oldest of three daughters and one son of Grover Cleveland Weed (an engineer) and Berenice (Benjamin) Weed; attended grade school in Syracuse, New York, and Lakewood High School in Lakewood, Ohio; Western Reserve University, A.B. in English, 1929.

The daughter of an engineer who encouraged his children to emulate his own love of adventure, Ethel Weed was born in 1906 and moved with her family in 1919 from her home-town of Syracuse, New York, to Cleveland, Ohio. There she became the first member of her family to achieve a college degree, with her graduation in 1929 from Western Reserve University (now Case Western Reserve University). She followed this accomplishment with an eight-year stint as a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. After a brief time of travel in Europe, she worked as assistant executive secretary of public relations for the Women's City Club in Cleveland. This position proved to be a springboard to her own public relations business, begun in 1941, which she conducted largely on behalf of women's groups and other civic organizations.

In 1943, during World War II, Weed made a career change after a client who was a recruiter for the Women's Army Corps (WAC) convinced her to sign up with the military. Basic training and time spent at the Officers' Candidate School in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, resulted in her receiving a commission as a second lieutenant in August 1944. She began as a recruiter, but her interest in travel to the Far East led her to apply for a special course in Japanese studies at Northwestern University. Accepted in the course, she became one of only 20 women officers chosen for an assignment in Japan at the end of World War II.

Japan's surrender in 1945 signaled the beginning of the occupation of that country by American forces, and Weed went on the first American convoy to Yokohama in order to assist with the demilitarization and democratization of Japan. That October, she took on the title of Women's Information Officer in the Civil Information and Education Section, with responsibility for drafting policies and developing "programs for the dissemination of information pertinent to the reorientation and democratization of Japanese women in [the] political, economic and social fields." Weed put her recruiting skills to work by surrounding herself with Japanese advisors who could counsel her in this daunting task, the majority of whom had been active in working for suffrage and other women's rights issues in the years before the war.

Weed focused on promoting women's suffrage in preparation for the first postwar election, to be held on April 10, 1946. American authorities were counting on the desire for peace of Japanese women to influence what sort of leadership would be elected, but women had been granted the right to vote only in January, and the press predicted that a mere 10% of those newly enfranchised would go to the polls. Using her extensive public relations skills, Weed launched a campaign that utilized press conferences, radio shows, motion pictures, and other techniques to motivate women to vote. Remarkably, 67% of women voters turned out, electing an astonishing 39 women to seats in Parliament.

Weed also focused vast efforts toward the development of women's organizations that were based on a democratic foundation. Her prior experience with Cleveland women's clubs was invaluable as she assisted with the organization (or reorganization) of groups such as the Women's Democratic Club, the Japanese Association of University Women, the Housewives' Federation, and the Japanese League of Women Voters. All across Japan, women's groups utilized a pamphlet Weed wrote on how to use democratic principles in running their organizations.

In 1946, a number of legal reforms enacted by the Occupation in order to better the status of women in Japan required a revision of the Civil Code. Weed assisted legal experts as they factored in the changes which gave Japanese women the freedom to choose a husband and provided equality with regard to property, divorce, and inheritance. As she had done with the suffrage issue, Weed campaigned across the country in support of these reforms. That same year, her extraordinary efforts were recognized when she was awarded an Army Commendation Ribbon on September 23. In 1947, she resigned from the WAC as a first lieutenant but continued crusading for her various causes as a civilian, playing an important role in the forming of a Women's and Minors' Bureau of the new Japanese Ministry of Labor. She staying with this task until the end of the Occupation in 1952, to guarantee that funds were not compromised by the government. Out of her many accomplishments during this time of upheaval, perhaps the most enduring was her instruction of women's groups on how to use their new rights.

After returning to the United States in 1952, Weed began doctoral studies of East Asia at Columbia University, although she never completed her degree. In 1954, she opened a bookstore that specialized in Asian works, the East and West Shop, with her cousin Thelma Ziemer , moving it from New York City to Newton, Connecticut, in 1969. She maintained contact with many of her Japanese friends and in 1971 made a return trip to Japan, where she was honored by both government and civic leaders. She died of cancer four years later, on June 6, 1975, in Newton.


Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980.

Susan J. Walton , freelance writer, Berea, Ohio