Women were indispensable to the Asian-American movement from its inception in the late 1960s. Following its black and Latino counterparts, the Asian-American movement evolved out of the antiwar and student movements and, somewhat more distantly, the civil rights movement. As with other racial/ethnic groups that have sought cultural and political rights, the Asian-American movement laid the ground for forging its own distinct feminism.
Activists in the people’s movements of the 1960s and 1970s saw clear parallels between their racialized class oppression in the United States and the national liberation struggles in the Third World. But identification with the independence struggles of Vietnam (and the extraordinary valor of its women), then under relentless bombardment by vastly superior United States forces, was particularly strong among Asian Americans (at the time this meant Chinese and Japanese, who were later joined by Filipinos and Koreans). Imbued with an anti-imperialist outlook, Asian-American women did not project men as the adversary when they started questioning their support roles within the movement. The feminism that developed continued to be informed by the perspective that capitalism was the main obstacle to social justice, a view shared by many black and Latino women, but not necessarily by the mainstream women’s liberation movement.
The arrival of Asian-American women at a feminist consciousness came after Latino and black women did so. In many Asian countries, families are heavily patriarchal, with women expected to dutifully perform familial responsibilities and, in return, to receive protection by their men. This traditional arrangement, combined with the history of United States exclusionary immigration policies, antimiscegenation, and other repressive actions (such as the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II), magnified the importance of family formation and stability. Moreover, the portrayal of Asian Americans as the “model minority” effectively dissociated them from ethnic groups engaged in street protests, resulting in their invisibility. It similarly rendered Asian-American women invisible to the white, middle-class women’s movement. For the latter, “women of color” meant black and Latina women, not Asian-American women.
Because Asian Americans sought alliances with other racialized groups that saw themselves as constituting “internal colonies,” or as a “Third World” within the United States, the first feminist stirrings among Asian-American women were anchored to ethnic/racial and class identity. Despite their experience of marginalization by men in the movement, they neither pressed for autonomy nor reached out to white women’s organizations for much-needed resources. They held “rap sessions” and study groups to exchange individual stories and analyze their specific predicament as Asian-American women. Two elders committed to overall social change, not mainly to gender, emerged as their role models—the Japanese-American Yuri Kochiyama in New York, and the Chinese-American Grace Lee Boggs in Detroit.
Believing in collective action, women organized to change conditions in their own communities, prompted by the slogan “Serve the People” from the 1960s Chinese Cultural Revolution. They maintained a profound interest in, and connection to, international politics. A landmark event that proved singularly inspiring to Asian-American feminists was the 1971 Vancouver Indochinese Women’s conference, at which they expressed solidarity with delegates from that war-ravaged region.
The early Asian-American feminist movement was composed of grassroots, middle-class, and student activists who mobilized around local issues. In Los Angeles, among their first projects were Asian Sisters, a drug-abuse center for women set up in 1971, and the Little Friends Play-group, a child-care center established in 1972 (Ling 1989). When this women’s collective received a Department of Health, Education, and Welfare fund award designated for drug abuse in 1972, its members decided to establish an Asian Women’s Center that would encompass drug abuse and child care as well as provide a variety of new services. These included health and pregnancy counseling, birth control, and abortion referrals. Beyond its provision of services, however, the Los Angeles Asian Women’s Center acquired enormous significance as a crucial meeting place for the Asian-American movement until its closure in 1976.
Colleges also supplied a hospitable climate for the articulation of feminism. The Third World student strikes of 1968 paved the way for the offering of ethnic studies courses in several California colleges in 1969. The first course on Asian-American women was offered at the University of California at Berkeley in 1970. At the University of California at Los Angeles, the first team-taught course, titled “Asian Women in America,” was presented in the Experimental College in 1972. Faced with a paucity of literature dealing directly with Asian-American women, the team of instructors, themselves learning as they taught, assembled readings on women in social movements in Vietnam, China, and Japan. They also called on grassroots women to share their life stories, conducted class meetings at sites such as the Asian Women’s Center and the Pilipino Community Center, and solicited community members’ attendance. Only in the area of racist stereotypes of Asian women in the media was there an abundance of materials to examine.
Although these courses were designed to address women’s issues, race and racism retained primacy. The matter of class cleavages, furthermore, created tensions and exacerbated the problem of focus. To resolve these tensions, a conference held in 1974 presented the concept of the “triple oppression” of “sexism, racism, and capitalism.” This formulation, while remote from the thinking of the main current, solidly aligned Asian-American women with Latino and black women. Needless to say, the anticapitalist thrust of the course did not elicit approval from the curriculum committee.
The mid-1970s witnessed a government infiltration of social movements, principally the Black Panthers and the Brown Berets, contributing to their eventual demise. Such a situation could not but reverberate among Asian-American activists. The 1976 closing of the Asian Women’s Center has been identified with the end of the Asian-American movement, which was a profound testimony to women’s mobilizing. A neoconservative tide swept in that would soon change the character of progressive thinking in general. “Minority” funding once aimed for grassroots organizations was soon funneled to middle-class, professional associations.
In colleges, team-teaching was replaced by specialists trained in ethnic studies and women’s studies who now had the benefit of a burgeoning body of literature. The 1989 publication of Making Waves: An Anthology of Writings by and about Asian American Women, edited by Asian Women United of San Francisco, is said to mark the professionalization of Asian-American feminism (Kim 2000). Asian Women United, founded in 1979, departs from earlier associations in its middle-class composition and purpose, which is the production of educational materials.
The collapse of the women’s movement and its consignment to the academy in the 1980s professionalized feminism and blunted its radical edge. Still, new approaches underpinned by postmodernism have emphasized specificities and the notion of “difference,” allowing women of color the space previously denied them. This in turn has led to the recognition of differences, if not hierarchies, inside the pan-ethnic “Asian American” category, which has been considerably expanded by the influx of new immigrants— Southeast Asia (e.g., Vietnamese, Cambodian, Lao, Hmong, Indonesian, Malaysian, Thai, and Singaporean) and South Asia (e.g., Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Nepalese, and Bangladeshi). These new approaches have also permitted the invention of separate racial/ethnic feminisms, such as “Pinayism” or “Pinay Power,” a Filipina feminist response to the once hegemonic (and presumably male) “Yellow Power” (de Jesús 2005).
The flurry of publications by and on Asian-American women reflects these new feminist trends, which are succinctly encapsulated by the “intersectionality” paradigm (involving gender, race, and class, among a multiplicity of identities) that have come to dominate women’s studies scholarship. Intersectionality recounts, yet also reverses and undercuts, the “triple oppression” theory of the past by foregrounding individual identity at the expense of systemic analyses.
Whether or not contemporary feminism retains a transformative project, or in what ways and to what extent it does so, is subject to debate. That the focus has shifted from the economic and material to the cultural and discursive is readily apparent, however. Feminist vocabulary, furthermore, has become specialized and accessible only to the initiate. The revised 1997 edition of Making Waves, titled Making More Waves, illustrates this change. While the first edition took up issues of class and work, war, and activism, the more recent version captures wholly new themes—such as multiple identities, biculturalism, and decolonization—that are patently individualist and discursive in nature, closely hewing to the “cultural turn” privileged by the academy.
If Asian-American feminism has had to make accommodations to the mainstream trend, globalization has also forced it to confront poverty-induced practices such as sex trafficking, mail-order brides, and migrant and sweatshop labor, each of which holds the potential for contesting hegemonic frameworks. But research on these topics, in order to gain legitimacy in the academy, must sidestep global capitalist exploitation and center instead on the everyday “agency” and empowerment exhibited by their subjects. The basic premise is that a socioeconomic elaboration would depict women as victims. Consequently, while able to say more about individual women’s daily lives, Asian-American feminism’s confinement to the academy has limited its ability to address systemic ills (if, indeed, that is still its aim). It might take another social upheaval to shake the foundations of this conjunctural worldview.
Asian Women United, eds. 1989. Making Waves: An Anthology of Writings by and about Asian American Women. Boston: Beacon Press.
Chow, Esther Ngan-Ling. 1987. “The Development of Feminist Consciousness among Asian American Women.” Gender and Society 1 (3): 284–299.
Chu, Judy. 1986. “Asian American Women’s Studies Courses: A Look Back at Our Beginnings.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 8 (3): 96–101.
De Jesús, Melinda, ed. 2005. Pinay Power: Peminist Critical Theory—Theorizing the Filipina/American Experience. New York: Routledge.
Epstein, Barbara. 2001. “What Happened to the Women’s Movement?” Monthly Review 53 (1): 1–13.
Espiritu, Yen Le. 1997. Asian American Women and Men: Labor, Laws, and Love. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Kim, Elaine H., Lilia V. Villanueva, and Asian Women United, eds. 1997. Making More Waves: New Writing by Asian American Women. Boston: Beacon Press.
Kim, Nancy I. 2000. “The General Survey Course on Asian American Women: Transformative Education and Asian American Feminist Pedagogy.” Journal of Asian American Studies 3 (1): 37–65.
Ling, Susie. 1989. “The Mountain Movers: Asian American Women’s Movement in Los Angeles.” Amerasia 15:1: 51–67.
Ng, Franklin, ed. 1998. Asian American Women and Gender: A Reader. New York: Garland.
Shah, Sonia, ed. 1997. Dragon Ladies: Asian American Feminists Breathe Fire. Boston: South End Press.
Wei, William. 1993. The Asian American Movement. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
Delia D. Aguilar