Due to the range of people and ideas covered under the banner of Asian and APIA feminism(s), I have not included a key text in this post but have instead done a more extensive list of people to know. If someone really thinks I should have included a key text and has an online source for it, I will gladly add it in and credit them. I have several essays in mind, but as I said I found their content to be varied enough that I wasn’t happy with choosing one over the other. So here is the next, non-exhaustive list, of feminists in my feminism of color series to start us out in Women’s History Month.
Trinh Minh Ha – She brings a critical cinematic eye to post-colonial feminism and an intricate theoretical analysis that marks how even the most minute detail holds meaning. She is an anthropologist, filmmaker, feminist and cultural theorist. She was chair of the Department of Women and Gender Studies at UC Berkeley and continues to teach there and in the Rhetoric Department. I have two memories of Minh Ha that make her first on my list: my last year of undergrad, I walked into a completely disengaged feminist theory class 15 minutes before the professor and heard a long drawn out negative discussion about the inaccessibility of Woman, Native, Other and the trajectory of the course as a whole that seemed to have “no bearing on feminism.” I was horrified to hear my peers once again demanding that feminist theory follow an established pattern from which it dare not deviate in the same ways 5 million years later, I hear my students saying; the difference being that we have all learned enough now that there are other voices in the room to remind that feminism does not have to look one way to count. Moments later, watching my prof flail for the very first time in my 3 years there, I opened the book and flippantly began waxing poetic about the image of the mirrored skirt in the chapter on the I/Eye and how it was a visual representation of the refractions of the self and the subsequent meanings of seeing and being known that were described in that chapter. The more I spoke, the more I realized that I was not just flippantly using the skills of deconstruction to reconstruct a story my cohort could stomach and therefore prevent a mutiny but that Minh Ha had in fact used images and their disjointed presentation as part of the text. Years later, I went to see her speak despite having a heinous cold. She talked about how she had become an academic in the first place and how her first appointment had left her feeling isolated and crazy wondering what she was thinking . . . as I watch so many talented women fight for tenure or lose it over “fit,” I always remember what she said. I think all of us on the margins have a moment when we realize that the world is designed to make us think our ways of knowing and expressing that knowledge are “crazy” – it is a theme in canonized texts going back to Wollstonecraft – but what makes us good scholars (inside or outside academe) is recognizing that there is beauty and connectivity in every detail of our lives. Difference is an asset to casting a wide net in ones thinking and constantly challenging oneself to be an inclusive and profound thinker.
Cynthia Tom – She is a feminist artists whose work addresses themes like: immigration, mothers and daughters, the self, female knowledge, sexuality, identity, and struggle. Her work reinterprets and often reinvents classical forms from both western and eastern traditions, and she also works in mixed media. She is a member of an Asian women’s artist collective that supports emerging Asian women artists and awareness about women’s artistic contributions to Asian art. She is also an incredibly nice person (yes that matters). Again, since art is not my area, you may want to do some more exploring of Asian feminist artists on your own. And definitely click through to her website, because her work is beautiful and provocative.
Yuri Kochiyama -She became an activist as a result of her experience of Japanese internment in her 20s, where her father died after extensive torture and lack of medical treatment. She has spoken out vividly about Japanese internment and the will of the nation-state. She and her husband initiated the push for internment reparations, which they won. She was also there the day Malcom X was assassinated, cradling his head in her arms as he passed away. She is a civil rights activist, social justice worker, and inspiration to countless activists and thinkers for generations. She argued for the connectivity between oppressed communities and the modes of oppression. To support the Black Panther movement they moved in to a predominantly working class black neighborhood and neither gentrified nor left through all of its changes. Her home became a major meeting place for radicals of all colors. She has worked tirelessly to support gender and class struggles in Harlem including: the garbage protests, the street protests for stop signs and traffic lights near parks and schools, etc. She has also worked tirelessly alongside women from the Black Panthers and others to put an end to the prison industrial complex in the U.S. and abroad, including going to prisons in places like Peru to demand freedom for political leaders. She has spoken out repeatedly against imperialism, including supporting the idea of armed struggle. She was among the Puerto Rican Independistas who took over the Statue of Liberty in 1977 to bring light to Puerto Rican demands for Independence. She was at the infamous WTO protests demanding enivornmental and economic justice for women and peoples around the world. She spoke to women’s groups in the Philippines and Japan about being a strong female leader and standing up against multiple oppressions as part of standing up against ones own. In July 2005 she was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. She was one of 1,000 women nominated globally, 40 from the U.S., that year as part of an effort to highlight the gender inequity of the selection committee and the work of women who often go under appreciated for the powerful work they do. She inspired a Women Makes Movies documentary called Yuri Kochiyama: A Passion for Peace. She also co-edited one of the first and still most important books on API feminism entitled Dragon Ladies: Asian American Feminists Breath Fire put out by feminist publishers Southend Press. Her autobiography is entitled Passing it On and her biography by Diane Fujino is entitled Heartbeat of a Struggle both have been considered inspirational to feminist activists around the world. Her impact as a feminist is best summarized by a participant in a UK reader poll for the best book they have ever read, her book was Dragon Ladies:
it encouraged me to link up with fellow Asian American feminist activists, campaign on behalf of exploited workers in Chinatown, organise forums on issues such as sex trafficking, and raise awareness of the realities of domestic violence in Asian American communities. Dragon Ladies showed me that as a young South Asian American woman, I could stand up and be counted because my voice and experience mattered.
While looking for a photo of her, I discovered that she was also the stated hero of a blogger I think could easily represent one face of modern day Asian feminism on the net: Jenn at reappropriate. If that isn’t an endorsement, I am sure all those canonized political leaders and social justice workers won’t sway you.
Gayatri Gopinath – She is Assitant Professor in Women’s Studies at UC Davis where she works on feminist theory, queer theory, popular culture and the Asian Diaspora. Her work is one of the pioneers in a growing body of literature that asks that we look at sexuality in its global, diasporic, and specific local incarnations in order to understand sexual and gender expression. The bulk of her research looks specifically at the Asian diaspora and women’s sexual expressions. She has recently been talking about the reception and perception of the film Fire and other lesbian films like The Journey and The Quilt. She published the latter discussion in GLQ under the title “Local Sites/ Global Contexts.”
Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai – She is a passionate poet who addresses issues of gender, race, social justice, nation-building, and hypocrisy on the left. Her work moves from specific concerns about sexual expression and identity within the Asian community to issues of racism, classism, sexism, and zenophobia outside of it. She writes with passion, humor, and insight. She also works to open spaces for other female and Asian poets and thinkers as well as building on multicultural activist alliances. Her poem about militarism draws important connections to domestic violence, war, the “oriental enemy,” liberal organizing that does not confront its own connections to nation-state projects and the ways in which these messages permeate our society and are easily internalized, etc.
She was regularly featured on Def Poetry Jam. Finally, she is often counted and as one of the influential poetic voices of her generation inspiring Asian and APIA feminist poets to write and speak. The other poem below speaks to her thesis about how creative work is revolutionary work.
Kieu Linh Valverde – California based activist and artist. She works with EMpower – a Vietnamese Girls Leadership Program and the Association of Viet Arts. She also co-founded Vietnam Women’s Forum – an internet group designed to break through feelings of social isolation for women – that now has over 300 members world wide. Her research has revolved around Vietnamese peoples political and social activism including education reform and immigrant rights and transnational identity especially in music. As an academic she has tried to incorporate classroom learning with social justice work and concepts for her students hoping to inspire them to be change makers. She is a former Rockefeller Fellow and Fullbright scholar and also arts curator. Like so many other people I think are great, she works at UC Davis.
Rinku Sen – She is a long time activist for gender equity, racial and social justice, and human rights. She is currently the Executive Director of the Applied Research Center and publisher of Color Lines. She has several publications including: We are the Ones We are Waiting For: Women of Color Organizing for Transformation (1995). She has published articles on women’s rights, immigration, Katrina, social and economic policy. Her steadfast work in writing about contemporary social justice issues won her the Asian American Journalists Association Dr. Suzanne J. Ahn Award in 2004. She was also the recipient of a Ms. Foundation research grant, as well as a Ford. In 1996 she was recognized by Ms. Magazine as one of 21 feminists to watch and won the Steinem Vision Award.
Grace Lee Boggs – She is a long time activist for women’s rights, racial justice, peace and labor activist, and environmental justice worker. She worked with some of the leading minds of the cultural revolutions. She also founded Detroit Summer a multicultural intergenerational youth program to empower marginalized youth in Detroit. She is the recipient of far too many awards to name which include: (2000) Chinese American Pioneers Award, (2001) Women’s Lifetime Achievement Award from the Anti-Defamation League, (2005) Lifetime Achievement Award from the Michigan Women’s Federation, and a plaque in her honor at the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls. My favorite quote:
I have had the privilege of participating in most of the great humanizing movements of the second half of the last century: peace, labor, civil rights, black power, women’s rights, Asian-American rights and environmental justice. Each was a tremendously transformative experience, expanding my understanding of what it means to be an American and a human being, challenging me to become more visionary and creative in developing strategies to bring about radical social change.
Her legacy of recognizing the interconnectedness of oppression and refusing to become complacent with ones perceived knowledge or accomplishments represents a challenge to all of us to keep learning, working, and creating community even in strife. Her legacy of a lifetime of questioning oneself, ones community, and the world has led her to be an inspiration to multiple generations of women of color activists and social justice workers around the world. Currently she runs the Boggs Center which is described as “a home and a haven for innovative ideas around the world” and writes a weekly column in Michigan. Her autobiography is entitled Living for Change.
Mitsuye Yamada – She is a prolific writer and critique whose political identity was crafted in the legacy of Japanese Internment, which included her families internment when she was 18 and the expulsion of her brother from college when she was 20 by the U.S. Air Force. Her first book Camp Notes and Other Poems was suppressed in the U.S. until 1976 for its criticism of immigration policies and the theory of perpetual outsider that had been applied to Asians since the first immigrants through to internment when the book was written. Her poetry has been about encouraging Asian women to speak out about their lives, experiences, and gender and cultural oppression. She wants her words to inspire others to make their voices heard. She spoke often about the interconnectedness of oppressions arguing that though she identifies as a feminist first, her other identities cannot be divorced from these and that “a movement that fights sexism in the social structure must deal with racism.” Her other publications include: “Invisibility is an Unnatural Disaster” in This Bridge Called My Back, “In/Visible Difference: Asian Women and the Politics of Spectacle,” and amulti-authored poetry and prose text entitled Three Asian American Writers Speak Out on Feminism. Many of her papers (1942-1998) are collected at the Online Archive at UC Irvine. Also take some time to read this powerful piece about Mitsuye’s return to the internment of her childhood with her own daughter, Jenny, from the Baltimore Sun.
Merle Woo -She is a radical feminist lesbian of color and academic. Her creative work includes poetry and participation in the Asian American feminist performance group Unbound Feet, both of which allowed her to talk about gender, sexuality, and ethnic identity. She is an inspiration to multiple communities including student activists and academic women of color; her unwavering decision to stand with activists against the administration got her dismissed from her position at UC Berkeley twice and both times she won free speech lawsuits against them in order to be reinstated. She has fought for better funding for breast cancer and screening for lesbians and women of color, better child support enforcement laws, and against the onslaught of anti-affirmative action legislation. Her poetry and her life have been about opening doors for discussing culturally specific and alliance oriented explorations of gender, sexuality, race, and the self. She was teaching at San Jose State University in Women’s Studies until 2005.
Maxine Hong Kingston – A prolific writer, Kingston was one of the first people Asian women writers to break into the modern canon. Her books were not only taught in Women’s Studies and literature courses but were also best sellers. The Woman Warrior is considered a feminist anthem to this day. She is also a decorated activist and academic. In 1997 then-President Clinton presented her with the National Humanities medal and won the National California Book Award in 2007 for her book Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace. Like other activists I have chosen to honor here, her radicalism got her arrested – in 2003 she dared to cross a police line, danger-danger, while protesting the Iraq war. She currently teaches at UC Berkeley.
Helen Zia – She is a long time feminist, civil rights, and queer rights activist. She was among the first women journalists to graduate from Princeton. Her groundbreaking research on rape at U Michigan led to an overhaul of campus safety procedures, reporting, and prosecution of sexual assault on campus. She also reported on women who join white supremacy groups using feminist theory to expose the hidden links between gender and race in supremacist movements. She covered the women’s conference in Beijing and testified before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. She was also the Executive Editor of Ms. Magazine. Her work was instrumental in shedding light on anti-Asian violence in the landmark Vincent Chen case. Her tireless work on feminism, economic and social justice, racism, and in later life queer activism have been an inspiration to all women and especially aspiring female journalists of color. Her decision to come out live on C-Span in the 1990s rocked a generation of asian and closeted queers. In 2007 she was voted one of the 5 top Asian queers in the media by AfterEllen.com. She has published several books on Asian American issues.
Sabrina Margarita Alcantara-Tan – She is the author of the feminist zine Bamboo Girl. She started the zine in 1995 to fill a gap in the depiction of asian feminist queer positive identities in the zine world. Wanting to meet the largest audience she also put the zine online reaching not only a global Asian queer market but also feminists, GLBTQ people, and people of color around the world. She also launched a blog in 2001 to “confront racism, sexism, and homophobia from a Filipina/API/Asian mutt perspective,” which not only confronts oppression in thought pieces but also serves as a message board for radical events and creative arts shows. She is also a committed activist addressing issues of racism, sexism, and homophobia through social justice work and filmmaking. She is co-founder of the Campaign for Safer Subway Stations, which she launched in response to the brutal rape, beating, and robbery of an Asian female commuter. She is also co-founder of Kilawin Kolektibo a Filipina lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgender collective. She is also an active member of the Gabriela Network a Philippine women’s solidarity organization.
Julian Pegues/Pei Lu Fung – She is a lesbian feminist poet, playwrite, and actress whose work explores gender, sexuality, race, immigration, and identity in general. She is a member of Mango Tribe, a national API women’s performance collective and has starred in her own one-woman shows entitled: Made in Taiwan, Fifteen, and First the Forest. She has several published pieces including in the groundbreaking Dragon Ladies anthology. She writes to work on her own herstories but also to inspire other APIs to find their voice and talk about their particular experiences as gendered and queer subjects. She is a long time activist and works with several organizations including: Asian Immigrant Women’s Advocates, Women Against Military Madness, Asian Pacific Lesbians and Bisexuals, and Women’s Prison Book Project among other organizations.
Peggy Myo Young Choy – She is an acclaimed dancer who uses the art to comment on gender, race, and nation. In speaking about her art she said the following: she re-environs and re-embodies the history and cultural politics of what it means to be an Asian woman in America. She has received multiple awards and grants including: a Ford, NEA, and Women of Achievement Award. Her work tospeak women’s experience through art most recently resulted in the dance production at the Women of the Scarred Earth Festival. She has published several books onthe connection between art and gender and culture expression. She is a member of the dance faculty at U Wisconsin.
Stacy Ann Chin – Recently moved from Jamaica to NYC (and therefore counts for this list). She is a lesbian feminist poet and performer who has spoken out about women’s rights, queer rights, and racism. Her poems address topics as wide reaching as her own personal identity and struggles, sexuality, gender, class, nation, and racism. She has argued throughout her work that all identities and oppressions are interconnected and to fight one you must fight them all. Below is her piece about her women’s studies students and the flattening out of feminist commitment through the need to categorize people and their struggles on erroneous hierarchies of oppression (including saying all black feminists must be womanists for example):
Noemi Sohn – She is a feminist who addresses disability activism, racial and gender justice, and a long standing fight against violence against women. She does activist trainings on Rape and Sexual Assault, Domestic Violence, Disability Rights, Race and Racism, and sexism and tries to explore the parallels and intersections of all of these themes as much as possible. As part of her commitment to confronting domestic and sexual violence, she spoke at the groundbreaking Incite! Color of Violence Conference. She also does media and documentary film work and has sat on the advisory board of San Francisco’s Public Television, as well as given talks on the role and exclusion/inclusion of women in the media. She recently published a chapbook of poems entitled: Intertwined for which she won the PEN Oakland Award.
Rather than re-invent the wheel with a list in this post, I am going to point you to reappropriate where as I said earlier I discovered the picture of Yuri Kochiyama that I wanted for the blog, and as a result also found Jenn’s pre-existing list of inspiring Asian and APIA women complete with links! I’ve still put some key texts and films below however:
- Cho I’m the One that I Want
- Gee Slaying the Dragon (film on media stereotypes)
- M. Gupta Unruly Immigrants
- Hong Between the Lines (film on poetry)
- E. Kim Making Waves
- S. Lim-Hing The Very Inside: An Anthology of Writing by Asian and Pacific Islander Lesbian and Bi-Sexual Women
- Lin & Tan “Holding up More Than Half the Heavens”
- Louie Sweatshop Warriors
- S. Maira Desis in the House
- Mohanty “Under Western Eyes,” Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, and Feminism Without Borders
- V. Nam Yell-oh Girls
- Narayan Decentering the Center: Postcolonial and Feminist Challenges to the Center & Dislocating Culture:Identities, Traditions, and Third World Feminism
- Shah Dragon Ladies
- C. Shimizu The Fact of Asian Women
- Shohat Talking Visions
- Song & Moon Korean American Women
- South Asian Women’s Collective Our Feet Walk the Sky
- Spivak “Can the Subaltern Speak”
- Wu Saving Face
- Yanagisako “Transforming Orientalism”
As always, this is not an exhaustive list and should not prevent anyone from participating in the meme. Once again, I hope that this post has re-established multiple generations of feminists of color working in their own right as well as introduced you to some new folks. 😀
Happy Women’s History Month!