Hon. Sandra Pierantozzi has been a member of the Senate of Palau, Minister for Administration, and the country’s first woman Vice-President. She started the story of her political life by paying tribute to her parents.


Hon. Sandra Pierantozzi: In those times girls were told ‘high school is enough for you, you end up being a housewife so why waste time going to college’. But my father, being a very wise old man, told me ‘go as high as you can with education’. He worked hard and my mother worked hard to put us through school.

Ian Johnstone: How many was us?

SP: I come from a very big family. In fact I describe my family as his and hers and theirs, my father’s first spouse passed away, leaving him with four girls, my mother’s first spouse passed away, leaving her with five and then they got married together and there’s us, six of us.

IJ: Wow, that is an extended family! How many male, how many female?

SP: There was four males, three from their family, one from her family.

IJ: And then about 14 young women, my word!

SP: Mmmhmm.

IJ: Tell me more about your father - he must have been an unusual man? A man of wisdom, but had he also himself been working in public life?

SP: No. My father was a village chief in Palau, then after WWII he was educated by the Japanese. During Japanese times, they only could go as high as sixth grade. After sixth grade he wanted to have more education. So he spent the next five years in Japan, learning to drive, he was a taxi driver I’m told, in Tokyo, for five years. When he came to Palau he spoke a little English and excellent Japanese. He could drive, had a licence, and he saw the value of education.

We were so poor that, even though my father was chief of a village, my mother had to make clothes. She had a sewing machine and taught herself to sew. She sewed dresses for everybody to make money to put us through school. Because of the great demand for her to make dresses, at different times I had to be called in to help. So I learned the art of sewing my own clothes while helping my mother, and when I went to college I made dresses for myself and was able to get by but I knew that every time I got my record card I always came out on the top.

My dad was such a proud man, he would go around telling everybody that ‘my daughter made straight As!’ He made a promise to everybody in my family, whoever gets straight A grades would get ice cream. Ice cream was such a treat, so that when I came home with a report card with straight As, he would beg for $2 from my mother and give it to me, I would walk half a mile to the closest store that would sell ice cream, and they would give me a gallon in a can, of ice cream, I’d walk home with it, and that would be a very good treat for everyone in the family.

IJ: Did you have a feeling of being, I don’t mean oppressed, but for women it was a limited range of careers, men were always dominant and that was that. Were you aware of that when you were growing up?

SP: When I was growing up I came from a culture, a matrilineal culture, but I didn’t feel really oppressed per se, but I knew that I had roles and that I’m a woman, and there are certain roles I have to play. Sure there were talks that I heard, like some people say, ‘Don’t bother going to school, going to college because you’re a woman, you’ll come home and be a mother and a housewife so its enough to just finish high school’. But my father was very different, he said, ‘Go to school’. In fact, the day I left home to go to school in the United States, he said to me, ‘my dear child, this might be our last time to see each other.’ I said, ‘But Dad, I’m going to come back’. He said, ‘If anything happened to me, don’t bother coming home to see me’.

Traditionally when kids go away to school, if somebody in the family died they’d have to come home. My dad differently said to me ‘don’t bother coming home, let this be our last goodbye, the next time we see each other will be in heaven.’ I said ‘no dad, if something happened I want to come back’. He said, ‘If I came back how could we talk? My eyes would be closed. But you stay at school because that would be more important for you in your life than coming home to see a dead man’. Well it actually happened that way, the day I left to go to back to college a month later, he died, and I came in spite of instructions, I came home, they had buried him. I got really upset, I cried, then his words came to my mind, so I said, ‘Enough, I’m not going to cry anymore’, and I turned around and ran right back to school.

IJ: What a lovely story, Sandra. You speak for so many people who live in small communities and then move. That is the price we have to pay isn’t it ? What a jump as well, there you were leaving Palau for Nebraska. How did that happen?

SP: It was a culture shock of course but when I graduated from the Seventh Day Adventist School, there were missionaries that helped me get into several colleges that were of course of the Seventh Day Adventist faith and I applied to several of them. Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska helped me make up my mind to go there because they gave me a scholarship.

IJ: Who went? Were you the only Micronesian, the only Palauan?

SP: I was the first Palauan but there was a family and two other girls who decided they wanted to go to Nebraska too. It really helped, when I stayed in the dorm and got homesick or lonely, I would call on them or visit them. They lived close by off campus, it really helped that there were other Palauans nearby.

IJ: Did you develop any feelings, commitments, ideas, about Palau becoming independent, when you were with the colonial power, America?

SP: Actually at that time quite frankly speaking, I had no such thoughts at all. We were still a Trust Territory, I was used to having somebody being the High Commissioner representing the United States Department of the Interior which was administering the island, so I never thought, even though they were mandated to help us politically, economically, whatever, become independent, I guess I was to young then to even think about those. It was only much later that I started thinking about those things.

IJ: At the same time, what about this young woman growing up, in her twenties, learning, discovering, doing well at college and all, and feminism is on the rise, did that affect you?

SP: Not at all. I come from a culture where it is a matrilineal society so at home Palauan women rule the home, we just appoint male members of the family or the clan to be chiefs and we have the power to remove them from those positions if they did not listen to, or follow the wishes of the women in the home. So it never was an issue for me. Because of my upbringing, where my dad said ‘be whatever you want to be’, it never dawned on me that my horizons should be limited, in fact I always thought that the sky is the limit.

When I was still going to school, somebody knocked on the door and proposed marriage and I said, ‘Are you out of your mind? I’m still going to school!’ He came in and proposed to my father and he said ‘fine, but she should finish high school.’ So I finished high school and he came knocking again, ‘can we get married?’ and I said ‘are you out of your mind!? I just finished high school at the top of my class and I got scholarships and I have to be a housewife!? Forget it!’ So when I went to school, when I came back he was still waiting. So after two years and my Associate in Science degree I came home, I got married, started teaching at the Micronesian Occupational College, then they gave me a further scholarship to go to the University of Hawaii and get a four-year degree, and my then-husband who is still my husband today, who had waited all those years for me, said, ‘Okay I will not stand in the way of your progress or advancements’, so he let me go to University of Hawaii and I finished up my four-year degree and went back to Palau and started my other career.

IJ: Sandra you’ve been quite fortunate in your men, your father and your husband! I’m interested in that business about that suitor coming and asking you for marriage 2, 3, 4 times. If it hadn’t been you, do you think another Palauan woman might have felt she would have had to say yes, that she should settle down?

SP: Actually yes, my suitor, my husband today, he is Italian. He was in Palau and he had good income, and people said ‘why don’t you quit school and get married, he’s offering you a good secure life.’ In fact he said,’ quit school and come marry me, I’ll take care of you for the rest of my life.’ But having been at school and quite good at my studies, I didn’t see myself tied down intending on being a wife, so I said, ‘wait, no, there’s other things for me.’ But as soon as I got back, 1979, Palau sat down to the task of writing a constitution for the country. Somebody found out I was an extremely good secretary because of my training at Nebraska, they recommended that I get into the convention as one of the professional staff. That’s where I made my debut, so when they decided that they needed junior clerks to take minutes of the meetings, the convention as it went on, there was a whole bunch of us so called stenographers. The seasoned ones were smart, they said ‘my shorthand is rusty, send somebody else’ and I was the newest one, so somebody said, ‘send Sandra over, her shorthand is fresh.’

So without knowing anything, as naïve as I was, I went there and what happened was that every deliberation was done in Palauan. I learned my shorthand, but shorthand was taken in English, so I was faced with a dilemma, and being naïve I didn’t know where to ask for help or anything so I sat there and as they were talking in Palauan I was taking it down in English, translating and I would have a journal ready for them the next day of the convention.

Then out of the corner of my eye I saw one of our former Presidents, Mr. Lazarus Soli, raise his hand and when he was recognised, he said ‘Mr. President, I have no correction to offer to this journal, to the contrary, I have nothing but compliments to the person who did this journal, because we conducted deliberation all in Palauan yesterday, it comes out in English, the English is excellent, when you delivered your opening speech yesterday it was in Palauan, on the record now it is as if you had spoken in English, the prayer that the pastor had come in to pray to open the convention is as if he had prayed in English”.

The secret was that the pastor they called in had been my high school teacher, so when he prayed Our Heavenly Father, I wrote ‘who art in heaven’, using the old English, so they were very impressed. From then on it turned the tide, everything I did was just great! So when that happened the congress at the time asked me to stay behind and work and that’s where I got started. I started working for the congress, the old congress. Learned quite a lot of things there, learned how the politicians worked, and learned the process, and then a new legislature, an interim legislature of one year came in, so I decided I didn’t like their politics so I went to a private company and worked for one year, and when our government came into office in 1981 again I was recruited to work for I had choice, and I said I’ll work for the senate.

We had financial problems and the Department for the Interior in the United States was breathing hard on Palau to do financial reforms. It got to the point where the office of our president was strapped, people went and shouted because we were in financial problems. So then President Epison asked if I would become the minister of finance. At the time we called it the minister of administration because it combined more than just finance. I was really kind of scared but somebody advised me that I should not be scared, that the technicians were all there, they knew what to do, they needed somebody with a good head on his or her shoulders to make the right decisions. So I jumped in and said okay, so they confirmed me and I became minister of administration.

IJ: Just let me check that, was that an appointment or was it an election?

SP: It was an appointment.

IJ: Were you the first woman to achieve an office of that order?

SP: I have a cousin who became the first woman minister, she was minister of community and cultural affairs.

IJ: So this was you, not only in a sharp-edged ministry, but one that had to introduce some unpopular policies I imagine. Did you carry the can for all that?

SP: She became minister a month or so before I got in, and right away I started making changes, improvements, and at the end of my term, 2 years later, I said to my president, you know when I first took this office, you asked me for $10,000 of the money that was donated to you to help a school, a private school that had been devastated by a typhoon. It took me 2 weeks to finally produce a cheque. You ask me today Mr. President 2 years later and I can say, you can ask me for up to $3million and I will issue a cheque without blinking an eye.

The United States had allowed us to put in a constitutional government, but it wasn’t until 1994 that we finally lowered their flag and lowered our own flag. It was the transition years between the Trusteeship and the actual Independence. Let me add to that, that was the first time the government of Palau had been in the black.

IJ: Was it after that success that you took the jump into what you might call elected political positions?

SP: Yes for the first time I offered myself to run for the Senate. I would have been in except July 10 of 1992, I was campaigning and we went to an inauguration of a state governer, some women got up and declared me their vice-presidential candidate and I thought, my goodness, I have the declared that I was going to be a senator, so I said, why not? That became my slogan for vice president. I ran against former president Tamia Mosau and I almost beat him. It was the first time I ever run in office, but my reputation through the minister of finance in Palau in fact, I won big. When we went, there were four of us getting into the primary, and I had just started campaigning, but I beat the other two and I was candidate for vice president.

IJ: Do you enjoy campaigning?

SP: Yes, there’s benefits to it, I won big in Palau but when we went out to get the votes from outside, people were saying ‘who is Sandra? Who is this Pierantozzi? What kind of name is that?’ So when the polls came in I watched my lead in Palau slowly go down the drain. So after that I was laughing my head off, even though I had lost, I was extremely pleased, because I never thought a woman would have a chance. But that showed me that I had a chance.

IJ: I would imagine you were the woman in the highest ranked office in the Pacific? I can’t think of anyone else who was of that sort of order. Well done, that’s wonderful! Tell me about your constitution Sandra, have you done enough to protect and advance the rights of women in that constitution?

SP: There was never a time when I tried to get into something and they said ‘No that’s only for men.’ But culturally speaking, Palauan women like to sit in the back and control things from behind. So one of the reasons there’s very few women, and I was the first one to get in there, was that women just didn’t bother putting themselves into that kind of situation. “Let the men doing the fighting and all of that, we have better things to do.” In reality it’s the women that kept things going. You come to Palau at any campaign time, it’s the women that are going house to house knocking on doors campaigning for their husbands, their uncles, their brothers. The men sit at home.

In fact when I ran for vice-president later and got in, there was a presidential candidate whose headquarters were across the street from my headquarters, so one evening I decided to walk over to say hello. When I went there all the women were on the outside, preparing food, getting organized over campaigning and they said ‘go inside and meet the candidate inside.’ They showed me to a room, when I walked in, there was a table full of men sitting down in their air conditioned room, supposedly strategizing. You know how it is. They were just passing time.

It hit home to me that as a woman you really have to work twice as hard, because when it came to food, I had to be in there. When it came to campaigning, I had to be there. I did not have women who would prepare the food, I had to do everything, because food is a part of the role of the woman.

IJ: Absolutely. Just take another tack on that Sandra, you mentioned early on that your husband is of Italian descent, now do you think that, and I’m asking you to kind of guess a bit here, but do you think that because he was from another country and had a different view of culture, that you have been helped and encouraged more than perhaps than if you had married a Palauan man?

SP: Yes and no. My husband came straight from Italy. I went to his house, one’s place in the house is taking care of the cooking and the children and so forth. In the early days we got into a lot of arguments, I couldn’t sit at home, he wanted me to sit at home and just be at home when he came home. I started climbing the walls, I said, I didn’t go to school to sit at home! I read all the books, made clothes for myself, I baked, I did everything, and I was bored. So finally he let me go to teach, get work. When I come home at the end of the day, he would say, ‘what should we eat for tonight?’ I would say ‘I don’t know I haven’t–’. ‘My mother, when I came home, she had food on the table’. Finally I said ‘it’s okay! I’m not your mother! And your mother didn’t teach 8 hours a day, and so when you came home, it’s okay for her to have everything ready for you but I’m not your mother!’ Communications is a big key to a relationship. We sat down and talked about it and he said ‘okay, we’ll go eat out.’ So when I felt like it, I cooked at home, otherwise we’d eat out, and so on.

So he became a very supportive husband, and he would tell me ‘I don’t want to be in the way of what you want to do for your country, so do whatever you have to do.’ He was very supportive to the point of going out, when I would say I would need so many billboards for campaigning, he would get them all done. He would do the logistical work. One day, it was very common in Palau, you stand on the street-side and say vote for me, one day he came out with a handheld picture of me, and people came by and said ‘Hello Marcello, hello Marcello’ and so on. One of the cars was waving to Marcello and was distracted so he bumped into the car in front of him. So Marcello was so scared he ran back and got out of sight. He’s been a big support in my life. On the other side, politics in Palau is still a family affair, so where my opponent would lean on his father’s relatives and his mother’s relatives, and his wife’s relatives on both sides, I cannot do that. It’s only one way.

IJ: Are you trying to persuade young Palauan women of today to get up, to do more of what you’ve done, to take political office, to take leadership?

SP: Yes, I think that my being a senator first and then vice-president, and having held three ministries, I have talked to younger women, and every time I have the opportunity I try to inspire them to do so. Because of my background as an educator, every time I do something, it always has an education aspect to it. When I tell someone what to do, I’m always telling them you have to do it because of this, not because of that. I’m always doing training. In fact when I return home, there is going to be a training for about 20 women to get into leadership roles. I’m going to be talking, one of the guest speakers will be talking about how to campaign in Palau. Because of my experience there are some very good tips I can give them.

IJ: You have been the chair of the Palau civil service board. So do you encourage recruitment of young women into your civil service?

SP: Well actually in Palau women are way ahead in terms of employment in the civil service. It’s just that into political leadership, we have been deficient of women. We have two senators now who are women, where I thought it would be a long time before another woman would make it, we now have two women senators. There is another woman who is again minister of community and cultural affairs. We have four women governors currently, but there have been other women governors in the past. We’ve had women speakers at the state level, we have women businesswomen, leadership in many different areas. So when you talk about leadership you put them all together, we’re there.

IJ: What’s next Sandra, you’re going to be president?

SP: Can’t say anything right now, but the future is open. The sky is the limit, we’ll see.

IJ: Well done you. It’s so nice to have a success story. Very briefly, what would you change in your country, to give women a better advantage, I mean are they held down because the birthrate is too high?

SP: No actually the birth rate is too low. We have a population of about 20,000 give or take a couple hundreds, but our population is becoming very mixed. In fact, in my opinion, the common citizen, the Palauans, it’s becoming an extinct people. When I was minister of health, we could see that the population growth was very slow, the birth-rate almost equalled the death rate per year, and its getting even worse now. There’s a lot of Palauans migrating to the United States and elsewhere to work so we are increasingly becoming a minority in our own land. But I would tell women in Palau, and elsewhere, to never give up, if you have aspirations to get into leadership, please do and give it all you can do, but always remember this in mind. If you’re going to get in there, don’t be a token woman. Be a woman that makes a difference.