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Aug 23 2019

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Where Do Women Fit In?

Asian America has masked a series of internal tensions. In order to produce a sense of racial solidarity, Asian American activists framed social injustices in terms of race, veiling other competing social categories such as gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and nationality. The relative absence of gender as a lens for Asian American activism and resistance throughout the 1970s until the present should therefore be read as neither an indication of the absence of gender inequality nor of the disengagement of Asian American women from issues of social justice.

Many Asian American activists (including some of the authors in this book) refute the label “feminist” although their work pays special attention to the experiences of women. Sometimes this feeling reflects a fear of alienating men — a consequence that seems inevitable if men are unable to own up to their gender privilege. At other times, the antipathy towards feminism reflects the cultural insensitivity and racism of White, European feminists.

Dragon Ladies: A Brief History

Empress Tsu-his ruled China from 1898 to 1908 from the Dragon Throne. The New York Times described her as “the wicked witch of the East, a reptilian dragon lady who had arranged the poisoning, strangling, beheading, or forced suicide of anyone who had ever challenged her autocratic rule.” The shadow of the Dragon Lady — with her cruel, perverse, and inhuman ways — continued to darken encounters between Asian women and the West they flocked to for refuge.

Far from being predatory, many of the first Asian women to come to the U.S. in the mid-1800s were disadvantaged Chinese women, who were tricked, kidnapped, or smuggled into the country to serve the predominantly male Chinese community as prostitutes. The impression that all Asian women were prostitutes, born at that time, “colored the public perception of, attitude toward, and action against all Chinese women for almost a century,” writes historian Sucheng Chan.

Police and legislators singled out Chinese women for special restrictions “not so much because they were prostitutes as such (since there were also many White prostitutes around) but because — as Chinese — they allegedly brought in especially virulent strains of venereal diseases, introduced opium addiction, and enticed White boys into a life of sin,” Chan also writes. Chinese women who were not prostitutes ended up bearing the brunt of the Chinese exclusion laws that passed in the late 1800s.

During these years, Japanese immigration stepped up, and with it, a reactionary anti-Japanese movement joined established anti-Chinese sentiment. During the early 1900s, Japanese numbered less than 3 percent of the total population in California, but nevertheless encountered virulent and sometimes violent racism. The “picture brides” from Japan who emigrated to join their husbands in the U.S. were, to racist Californians, “another example of Oriental treachery,” according to historian Roger Daniels.

It bears noting that despite the fact that they weren’t in the country in large numbers, Asian women shouldered much of the cost of subsidizing Asian men’s labor. U.S. employers didn’t have to pay Asian men as much as other laborers who had families to support, since Asian women in Asian bore the costs of rearing children and taking care of the older generation.

Asian women who did emigrate here before the 1960s were also usually employed as cheap labor. In the pre-World War II years, close to half of all Japanese American women were employed as servants or laundresses in the San Francisco area. The World War II internment of Japanese Americans made them especially easy to exploit: they had lost their homes, possessions, and savings when forcibly interned at the camps, Yet, in order to leave, they had to prove they had jobs and homes. U.S. government officials thoughtfully arranged for their employment by fielding requests, most of which were for servants.

Making Waves, Big and Small

The first wave of Asian women’s organizing formed out of the Asian American movement of the 1960s, which in turn was inspired by the civil rights movement and the anti-Viet Nam War movement. While many Asian American women are quick to note that women’s issues are the same as men’s issues — i.e., social justice, equity, human rights — history shows that Asian American men have not necessarily felt the same way. Leftist Asian women in Yellow Power and other Asian American groups often found themselves left out of the decision-making process and their ideas and concerns relegated to “women’s auxiliary” groups that were marginal to the larger projects at hand.

As Asian American scholar Gary Okihiro notes, “Europe’s feminization of Asia, its taking possession, working over, and penetration of Asia, was preceded and paralleled by Asian men’s subjugation of Asian women.” While earnest, hardworking, and vital, these early Asian women radicals couldn’t compete with the growing reality that for many Asian American women, there was money to be made. The highly educated and affluent Asian immigrants who came to the U.S. after 1965 were eager to be incorporated into the U.S. economy.

Not surprisingly, large organizations of primarily middle-class East Asian women flourished during these years. These groups devoted themselves to education and service projects, rather than to directly resisting social injustices. However, conservative and mainstream institutions supported these “model minority” activities because it implied there was a “good” minority in tacit opposition to the “bad” minorities — African Americans and Latinos. At the same time, the model minority myth helped countless struggling Asian Americans start businesses and send their kids to Ivy League schools, and was thus consciously upheld by Asian American community leaders.

White feminists and other liberals advanced this feel-good fantasy with celebrations of Asian American culture and people. The result was a triple pressure on Asian women to conform to the docile, warm, upwardly mobile stereotype that liberals, conservatives, and their own community members all wanted to promote. The political context of the 1990s is significantly different and today, Asian immigrant professionals are less vital to the labor market and are thus, in a familiar cycle, being forced down the status ladder.

The New Face of Activism

Asian immigration laws have changed such that they new Asian immigrant is not educated and professional but working-class or poor. Trade agreements such as NAFTA and GATT have broken down protections for workers and the environment in order to secure a free-wheeling capitalist global economy, and Asian workers, especially women, are suffering the worst of it — laboring under worse working conditions and being forced to compete for the most degraded, worst-paying jobs. Activists have responded to these new changes with a renewed labor movement that cross borders and industries.

Asian women organizers have been at the forefront of these campaigns. Most significant among these is the groundbreaking campaign by Asian Immigrant Women Advocates (AIWA) to organize Asian seamstresses against a powerful fashion designer, Jessica McClintock. With workers’s campaigns such as AIWA’s, new issued-oriented organizations such as the National Women’s Health Organizations, and rejuvenated Asian battered women’s organizations, a new generation of activists is springing up.

With fewer and fewer class interests to divide them, they are shaping a new movement, one that goes beyond just agitating for our little piece of the ever-shrinking pie. They are putting poor immigrant and refugee Asian women at the forefront of their organizing, thinking globally, and they are making the connections among the politics of labor, health, environment, culture, nationalism, racism, and patriarchy. A different sort of Dragon Lady is emerging — not a cold-blooded reptile, but a creature who breathes fire.

Author Citation

Copyright © 1997 by Sonia Shah. Reprinted in accordance with Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976.

Suggested reference: Shah, Sonia. 1997. “Women and Gender Issues” Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. ( ).

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