Women’s History Month: Asian Women in US History

Women’s History Month: Asian Women in US History

By Rachel A. Zimmerman

Visibility and recognition are not given to people of the AAPI community enough. Given the rise on hate crimes and discrimination, for Women’s History Month, I am celebrating and highlighting the lives of Female-Identifying Asian Immigrants and Asian-Americans.

History isn’t something stuck in the pages of old books, it’s a living, breathing thing. It’s alive because we talk about it regularly and it’s our present and future because we are shaping history right now with every choice we make. 

In schools, we focus so much on white history and leave out people of color and the contributions they bring to the creation and development of this nation. Without people of color and immigrants, we would not have the culture, diversity, experience, infrastructure, or heart we have today. 

Asian women have brought us new medicines, space engineering, given us a new perspective and countless works in the arts, fought for civil rights and other legal acts of justice, written books that shape our world and our minds, held high offices in our government, won medals in the Olympics and so much more to build this country into an amazing nation that has the opportunity to strive for even more. 

Even with all these accomplishments, Asian women are not recognized enough and deserve to feel proud and show this country that they count and they make a huge difference to us as a nation and as individuals. I am proud of the Asian women in our history and want everyone else to know the names and faces of each person I draw this month. 

Throughout the month, I will post a new portrait honoring an Asian woman who has impacted culture, science, law, and economy in the US. Please follow the posts every day this month because understanding what Asian women have done for this country is a way to understand Asian culture, combat Asian hate, and recognize our possibilities in the development of the United States.  

Please follow me on instagram @raz_design_studio to watch history unfold through their portraits.

Try your luck at Identifying These Incredible Asian Women who have made US History and learn more about them:

1. Mary Tape was a desegregation activist for access to education for Chinese-Americans. Tape fought for her daughter’s right to attend public school in California almost 70 years before Brown Vs. Board of Education. Mary immigrated to the United States from China when she was eleven years old. In 1884, she tried to enroll her eight-year-old daughter Mamie at a white public school in San Francisco. When school authorities turned Mamie away because of her Chinese ancestry, Mary and her husband Joseph sued the Board of Education. The lawsuit became a landmark civil rights case for public school desegregation.

2. Patsy Mink was a third-generation Japanese American attorney and politician, born and raised in Hawaii. In 1954 Mink founded the Oahu Young Democrats and worked as an attorney for the territorial house of representatives in 1955. Mink maintained a focus on national issues, especially those affecting Asian Pacific Americans (APA) and the Pacific region. She was the first woman of color and first Asian-American elected to congress.

3. Dr. Kalpana Chawla was the first US woman of Indian decent to go to space. She went twice and died on her second flight in 2003. She was a pioneer and was responsible for the development of techniques for aerodynamic optimization. Between her two missions, Chawla logged 30 days, 14 hours, and 54 minutes in space.

4. May Chen was a labor organizer, activist, and founding member of the APALA (Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance). She organized one of the larges APA strikes in Chinatown NY in 1982. 

5. Chien-Shiung Wu was a Chinese-American particle and experimental physicist who made significant contributions in nuclear and particle physics. She is known as the First Lady of Physics.

6. Yuri Kochiyama was a Japanese-American civil rights activist who fought for social change and justice.

Helen Zia art

7. Helen Zia is a fellow LGBTQ Jersey girl. She is a Chinese-American journalist and a key figure in the Asian American Movement. She has spent her career fighting for civil rights and equality justice.

8. Merle Woo is a queer Chinese-Korean and American academic, poet and activist. She is known as a leading member of the Radical Women and the Freedom Socialist Party. She came out as a lesbian in the late 1970s and has been fighting for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transsexual rights ever since.

9. Amy Tan 譚恩美 a renowned American author known for the novel The Joy Luck Club. She was born in the U.S. to Chinese immigrant parents. Amy has lectured internationally at universities and delivered a TED talk and spoken at the White House. She also served as lead rhythm “dominatrix,” backup singer, and second tambourine with the literary garage band, the Rock Bottom Remainders, whose members included Stephen King, Dave Barry, and Scott Turow. Tan recently took up nature journal sketching and the bird on her shirt in the portrait above is an example of her work. 

10. Grace Lee Boggs is considered the eldest human rights activist and of our time. She was a Chinese-American author, activist, philosopher, and feminist. Boggs’ published writings include Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century. She spent her life advocating social justice and civil rights. 

11. Maya Lin is a Chinese-American designer and sculptor. She is best known for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and her large-scale environmental artworks. Her artwork has been featured in numerous solo exhibitions at museums and galleries worldwide, with works in the permanent collections of the National Gallery of Art; The Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Museum of Modern Art; The Smithsonian Institution; The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art; and the California Academy of Sciences, among others. She is represented by the Pace Gallery in New York.  She is a multidisciplinary artist, exploring the boundaries of nature and memory.

12. Lea Salonga is a Filipina singer and actress. She received a Tony-award for her role in Miss Saigon. She also was the singing voice for two Disney Princesses, Mulan and Jasmine. Lea has toured all over, performing sold out concerts in such locations as the Sydney Opera House and many more Halls around the world. 

13. Wong Liu-tsong (which means “Frosted Yellow Willows), known professionally as Anna May Wong, was the first Chinese American movie star. She appeared in over sixty movies throughout her career and was fluent in 6 languages. After many years trying to work in American films, Wong left Hollywood due to the constant discrimination. She moved to Europe where she starred in many plays and films. While working on films in the United States, Wong was still asked to play stereotypical Asian roles. Wong died on February 3, 1961 of a heart attack. She was 56 years old. After her death, the Asian-American Arts Awards and the Asian Fashion Designers group named annual awards after her.

14. Tammy Duckworth is a US Senator. She was born in Thailand, served in the Army and the National Guard, and used to represent Illinois’s 8th congressional district in the House of Representatives. She was injured while flying a Black Hawk in Iraq. Duckworth is fluent in Thai and Indonesian. She attended college at the University of Hawaii and earned a Master of Arts in International Affairs from the George Washington University. She’s a force and extremely motivated and strong. She’s a boss.

15. Cecilia Chung, an immigrant from Hong Kong, is a transgender woman living openly with HIV. She is an internationally recognized civil rights leader who advocates for HIV/AIDS awareness and care, LGBT equality, and social justice. 'In 2002, she joined the Board of the Asian Pacific Islander Wellness Center and currently consults with them on an innovative mobile HIV testing project for transgender youth. In 2004, as a founding producer of Trans March, she helped organize one of the world’s largest annual transgender events which has since been replicated in cities across the U.S. In 2005, she became the first Deputy Director of the Transgender Law Center and is widely credited with shaping the organization’s mission and programs. In 2013, she was appointed by President Barak Obama to the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS.'

16. Evelyn Yoshimura was born in 1948, after her family was relocated from a WWII internment camp in Poston, Arizona. She was the Community Organizing Director at the Little Tokyo Service Center, a staff member of the Asian American newspaper, Gidra, and co-founder of the Amerasia Bookstore. Evelyn is an advocate in the Civil Rights movement and speaks out on the threats of gentrification to Little Tokyo.

17. Nobuko Miyamoto is a third-generation Japanese American. As a child, she was uprooted by forced removal during World War II and her family was put in a camp. Throughout her career, she has fought for equality and civil rights. She is an activist, songwriter, singer, dancer, theatre director, author, Artistic Director of Great Leap creator, and community artivist.

18. Padma Parvati Lakshmi is an Indian American author, activist, chef, food writer, actress, model, and television host. She is known for Top Chef, but her latest show, Taste The Nation is an incredible show about food culture in America. She is also the co-founder of Endometriosis Foundation of America and Artist Ambassador for immigrants’ & women’s rights. She’s also the Goodwill Ambassador for the UNDP. She got a bachelors in Theatre and Literature, and is known as India’s first supermodel.

19. Aihwa Ong is an author and a Professor of Anthropology and South and Southeast Asian Studies at Berkeley, a member of the Science Council of the International Panel on Social Progress, and a former recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship for the study of sovereignty and citizenship.

20. Linda Oalican is the Co- Founder and Executive Director of Damayan Migrant Workers Association. Dayaman is a grassroots organization for Filipino immigrant workers in NY led by Filipino domestic workers.

21. Chloe Zhao is a Chinese filmmaker and is the first Asian woman to win an academy award for best director for her work on Nomadland. She has a few films under her belt but is also well known for her work on Songs My Brothers Taught Me and Marvel’s The Eternals. She studied at NYU under Spike Lee and has experience as a director, writer, producer, and editor. She lives in California with her partner, three chickens, and two dogs.

22. Muna Tseng, originally from Hong Kong, is a Chinese-American dancer, choreographer, author, and lecturer. In 1984, she founded Muna Tseng Dance Projects in New York City. As Artistic Director, she created over 40 dance productions and performed in over 30 cities and festivals in 15 countries.

23. Toshiko Takaezu was one of my the greatest abstract artists of the 20th century. She was born in Hawaii, and daughter of Japanese immigrants. She was an American ceramic artist, painter, sculptor, and educator. She was known for her rounded, closed forms that pushed ceramics as a fine art over functional. Her work is exciting, thought-provoking, and worth a deep look into learning about more. She gave us incredible works of art which gives us joy and a better understanding of the possibilities of ceramics and form.

24. Dr. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee was a women’s rights activist and minister. She campaigned for women’s suffrage and politically mobilized the Chinese community in America. She went to Barnard College in NYC in 1912 because Columbia refused to admit women. After graduating, Columbia admitted her and she was the first Chinese woman to get a PhD in economics at Columbia. She then wrote a book on her research called The Economic History of China. In 1920, the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote, but not all women because of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Chinese women couldn’t vote until 1943, but because we aren’t sure if she ever got Citizenship, we are also not sure if she ever voted in her lifetime. She died in 1966.

25. Senator Mazie Hirono is the first elected female senator from Hawaii, the first Asian-American woman elected to the Senate, the first U.S. senator born in Japan, and the nation's first Buddhist senator (non-practicing). She has a BA in Psychology and a JD from Georgetown. Hirono is also a cancer survivor.

26. Amanda N. Nguyen is a social entrepreneur, civil rights activist, and the CEO and founder of Rise, a non-governmental civil rights organization. She was involved in proposing and drafting the Sexual Assault Survivors' Rights Act, the 21st bill in modern U.S. history to pass unanimously through Congress. She fights to make this world a better place.

27. Malala Yousafzai Malik is a Pakistani activist for female education. She is the world's youngest Nobel Prize laureate, and second Pakistani to ever receive a Nobel Prize. She is well known in the international community for her diary about life under Taliban rule. Since then, she has become a voice for education and equality for all around the world. I chose her because a lot of people don’t realize Pakistan is in Asia and she’s my international pick because she’s influenced the entire world, including the US.

28. Jhumpa Lahiri is an American author known for her short stories, novels and essays. Lahiri was born in London and parents of indian immigrants. Her debut novel was The Namesake. She is a vice president of the PEN American Center and an appointed a member of the Committee on the Arts and Humanities. She’s won many awards, including winner of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2015 for her book The Lowland, and she received the Pen/Malamud award for excellence in the short story.

29. Margaret Cho is a Korean American stand-up comedian, actress, musician, fashion designer, and author. She is best known for her stand-up routines, through which she critiques social and political problems, especially regarding race and sexuality. I am a giant fan of her work and followed her career my entire adult life. She brings humor to serious issues and creates a platform for social change. She is openly bisexual and fights for LGBTQ rights.

30. Sandra Miju Oh is a Korean Canadian-American actress. She has recently fought for Asian rights as an Activist. She is best known for her starring roles as Rita Wu on Arliss, Cristina Yang on Grey's Anatomy and Eve Polastri on Killing Eve. Oh is the first Asian-Canadian woman to host Saturday Night Live, the first actress of Asian descent to be nominated for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series, and the first woman of Asian descent to win two Golden Globes. In 2019, Time magazine named Oh one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

31. Kamala Harris: I thought it fitting I end Women’s History Month on Kamala Harris because she is helping run the country. Harris is an American politician and attorney who is the 49th and current vice president of the United States. She is the first female vice president and the highest-ranking female official in U.S. history, as well as the first African American and first Asian American vice president. Her parents are activists and immigrants from India and Jamaica. Harris was born in California and held office as California’s Attorney General, overseeing the largest state justice department in the United States. She established the state’s first Bureau of Children’s Justice.

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Thanks, Rachel. I look forward to your posts!

Daniel Zimmerman

Thanks, Rachel. I look forward to your posts.!

Daniel J Zimmerman

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