Asian American women have historically had to overcome many barriers, such as legal restrictions when U.S. laws limited their immigration to the states; segregation; and later, stereotypes when Hollywood began portraying them in the 1920s. In Hollywood, anti-miscegenation beliefs kept Asian American actresses from kissing any Caucasian actors. Asian Americans also had to compete with Caucasian actors who acted in “yellowface”—a racial exaggeration of “Asian” features used for comedic purposes. In spite of these obstacles, Asian American actors, such as Anna May Wong, became internationally known actors and pioneers.

Past Pioneers

  1. Anna May Wong was a famous actress in the 1920s and was the first Chinese American movie star. In addition to movies, she also performed on TV, live on stage and on the radio.

    Anna May Wong
  2. Maya Lin is an architect of Chinese descent. In 1981 at the age of 21, while attending Yale University, she won the contest to design the Vietnam Veteran’s memorial in Washington D.C. She also designed the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama.
  3. Chien-Shiung Wu was a Chinese American physicist who specialized in experimental physics and radioactivity. She was known as the “First Lady of Physics” due to her work on the Manhattan Project. She died after suffering a stroke at the age of 84 in 1997.
  4. Patsy T. Mink, a Hawaiian of Japanese heritage, was the first woman of color elected to US Congress. She graduated high school in 1944, at a time of high anti-Japanese sentiment, as the class president and valedictorian. She served in Congress for six terms and advocated for universal health care and gender equity.
  5. Victoria Manalo-Draves, a swimmer of Filipina heritage, was the first Asian American woman to win gold at the Olympics in 1948. She grew up swimming at a San Francisco club that denied her membership and segregated her from Caucasians. She persisted and became the first woman to win two diving gold medals in the same Olympic Games that year.
  6. Kalpana Chawla was the first Asian American woman in space. She was born in Karnal, India, and was a pilot and aerospace engineer. She studied the effects of weightlessness and operating robotics. She was among those killed in the tragic disaster of the shuttle Columbia explosion in 2003.

Today, segregation is illegal and racialized exclusion from programs or schools is prohibited, but there are still fields where Asian American women are underrepresented. Stereotypes challenge the individuality of an API woman. While a “submissive” stereotype persists for them, others like Margaret Cho and Sutapa Basu challenge these ideas through their work. Cho talks about these “taboo issues” through her comedy while Basu works to provide social services to women in India to provide empowerment and end human trafficking. In the media and entertainment industry, women such as Jasmine Trias and Leyna Nguyen have used their fame for good causes. Nguyen has built and renovated schools in Vietnam, while Trias has done commercials to discourage drug use.

Present Pioneers

  1. Amy Tan is an Asian American writer of Chinese descent. Her books deal with mother-daughter relationships. Her most popular work of fiction, “The Joy Luck Club”, was also released as a film. While some argue her stories are one-dimensional, her works have helped break barriers for API writers.
  2. Phyllis Wise is the provost at the University of Washington. She has also been inducted into the National Academy’s Institute of Medicine. Wise grew up in upstate New York and New Jersey, where both her parents taught at universities after they emigrated from China.
  3. Cindy Ryu is the current Mayor of Shoreline, Wash. and is the country’s first female Korean-American mayor. English was Ryu’s second language. She used to be very shy, but overcame her shyness by joining a toastmaster’s club. She lost her first election in 2003, but came back to win by nearly 2,000 votes in 2005.
  4. Margaret Cho is a comedian of Korean heritage who began performing at age 16. In 1994, she starred in an ABC sitcom called All-American Girl. In addition to being a comedian, Cho is also a writer and blogger. She has received the First Amendment Award from the ACLU of Southern California and the Intrepid Award from the National Organization for Women (NOW).
  5. Sutapa Basu is the director of the internationally known UW Women’s Center, which provides educational, and support services. Under her leadership it has become the largest university-based center in the US. Dr. Basu has worked with women’s groups in India and the US and is known for her work on human rights and trafficking.
  6. Jasmine Trias is the first person of Filipina descent to advance to the finals in the show “American Idol”. During that time Jasmine Trais Day was declared for the state of Hawaii (May 20th) and for the city of Honolulu (May 21st). Trias has also done various commercials in Hawaii discouraging smoking, drinking, and drug use.
  7. Stacy Prammanasudh is a Thai American golfer. She plays on the LPGA Tour, which was criticized in 2005 for being anti-immigrant because of its language policies. She won 10 collegiate events throughout her college career.
  8. California news anchor Leyna Nguyen.

    Leyna Nguyen is a Vietnamese-American TV anchor and reporter from Los Angeles, California. She has received three Emmy awards. In 2000, Leyna was designated one of the country’s “25 Most Influential Vietnamese Americans in 25 years”. She has built and renovated several schools in Vietnam through her non-profit foundation, Love Across the Ocean.

Each of these women faced barriers—whether it was segregation, stereotypes, or pressures to conform, but persisted and served as pioneers beyond their respective fields. This was a regrettably short list. Many more are just as important and huge contributors to their local communities, internationally, or somewhere in between. We honor those unsung heroes here as well for their dedicated work.

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