Celebrating Women of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage

Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month is observed in the United States during the month of May. But frankly, a month is not enough to recognize the many contributions and important influence of Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans to the history, culture, and achievements of the United States throughout time. 

Influential History

The road to freedom has been a long one for Asian/Pacific Islander Americans. Throughout most of the 19th century, the United States government did almost everything possible to repress Asian and Pacific Islanders once they entered the country. They especially overlooked and oppressed Asian women. Policies like the Chinese Immigration Law and the Page Act actively barred Asian women from entering the land of the free under the guise of protecting the nation from “immorality.”

It wasn’t until 1965 when some of their honor was redeemed during the Civil Rights movement and restrictive quotas against Asian immigrants were relaxed. Over 20 years later Asian/Pacific Islander American Heritage month saw its first of several iterations. President George Bush signed it into annual law in 1992, long overdue for national recognition of their contributions to building this country. 

The historical presence of Asian/Pacific Islander women in America is as rich and varied as palau, the spicy rice dish that goes by many names and is common in Central and South Asian cuisine. It all began with the first Chinese woman in America exploited as a circus exhibit and immigrant mothers and children confined to wooden barracks. But progress started to come about due to the Civil Rights Movement; the Gidra newspaper, which during its 1969 to 1974 run became the voice of the Asian American Movement; and the creation of monuments, museums, movies and music that celebrated their cultural diversity. 

Women from Asia and the Pacific Islands have brought their distinct perspective and tenacious dedication to freedom and justice in the United States. 

Influential Voices

The voices of Asian women who have often been silenced by misogyny and racism, speak loudly through their advocacy, through their art and discovery, through their resistance.

There are so many women whose voices have brought about positive change.

“To fly, we must have resistance.” This quote isn’t a short lesson on aerodynamics. It is a call to action, from Maya Lin, one of the most relevant architects of our day. Her design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., began as a school project, for which she garnered a “B.” Then she entered the unprecedented contest for the memorial design project and won.

“To fly, we must have resistance.”

Maya lin

There was scathing criticism, but the memorial became the healing balm that she had envisioned it to be. Maya, a young Chinese woman, stood against presidents and political leaders to make her voice heard.

Honor women like Grace Lee Boggs, an unstoppable civil rights activist who liked to hang around Black Panthers; and Ali Wong, a comic, actress and writer who is not afraid to laugh at the quirks in her culture. These and others answered the call to resistance in 13 different categories that have been undeniably enhanced by their presence. 

Influential Women

Below is just a small list of more women who have and are still dismantling the tropes and setting the stage for the eyes of the world to see them as individuals of great substance, passion and power—as Americans, deserving of honor every day of the year.

  • Politics – Kamala Harris, U.S. Vice President, dizzying list of firsts    
  • Social justice – Yuri Kochiyama, civil rights activist
  • Art – Christine Sun Kim, visual artist
  • Sciences – Kalpana Chawla, first Indian woman in space
  • Sports – Naomi Osaka, champion tennis player, entrepreneur
  • Education – Erika Lee, professor of history, author, researcher
  • Medicine – Margaret Chung, first American born Chinese doctor
  • Business – Indra Nooyi, former CEO of PepsiCo
  • Literature – Celeste Ng, author of Little Fires Everywhere
  • Military – Tammy Duckworth, National Guard Lt. Colonel, retired, Senator, first woman amputee of Iraq War
  • Entertainment – Nicole Scherzinger, singer, TV host
  • Faith and religion – Angela W. Buchdahl, first Asian American rabbi and cantor
  • Music – Amerie, Grammy winning singer/songwriter

While there is still a long way to go, take a moment to celebrate these strong women for how far they’ve come, the contributions they’ve made and the value they encompass!

Stacey Herron is a special education assistant teacher who is rediscovering her creative side. She is also a certified doula and hopes to go back to school for nursing and midwifery. Stacey has a fish, Sasha, and loves to babysit her nieces and nephew. When not reading or working on a needlework project, you can find her playing with polish and painting her nails. Her travels include England, Scotland and Puerto Rico. She lived for a short while in Lake Tahoe, five years in Nashville, Tenn., and now resides outside of Washington, D.C.

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