Asian, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander American Womxn Paving the Way


Artwork from Amplifer Art by Shepard Fairey

A while ago I read Chelsea Clinton’s book She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World. I borrowed it from the library to read with my kid and for the older one to expose him to why feminism matter (he thinks he’s beyond picture books but exposure still works). We settled in at bedtime and we read through the pages together. At the end of the book I flipped back to the beginning and looked through it again, I couldn’t find any Asian Americans included. I was very disappointed by the lack of inclusion of Asian American womxn. I cringed but tried to hide it from the kids at the moment.

The oversight makes Asian American contributions to America invisible and for kid’s like mine, it subtly teaches them to hide their Asianness or at least it isn’t something to celebrate. When I pointed this out someone politely challenged me to write a book featuring Asian American womxn who are badasses and changing the world. While this isn’t a book this is one attempt to put a stake in the internet-ground and say Asian American womxn are here, we are changing the world, and we will celebrate our Asianness.

I also want to prove when we look, we can find what we are looking for — of course, there are amazing Asian American womxn changing the world. This list is a combination of historical and national leaders, and local to Seattle and Hawaii (writer’s bias and privilege) leaders. Thank you to friends who contributed names to the list. This list focused on Asian American and Pacific Islander womxn, where known I listed their ethnicities to also show Asian Americans ethnicities are diverse and that should be recognized as an asset. I focused on Asian Americans (not Asians) with two known exceptions.

The Activist and Systems Shakers

Judge Mary Yu

Judge Yu is a total badass. She was the first Latina and Asian American justice on the Washington’s state Supreme Court. She’s also the first openly gay Justice in Washington. Just being the first makes her a badass because we know you have to overcome a ton of barriers to reach that pinnacle of success, but what sets her apart from others is her continued commitment to social justice and the community.

When Washington legalized same-sex marriage Justice Mary Yu (get it—marry you) presided over the first gay-wedding. Justice Yu has also made a point of staying engaged in the community. During Constitution Day she visited an elementary school and leading conversations with 300 2nd to 5th graders about what judiciary system is and how it upholds democracy. Taking time to do this showed the students, especially the girls of color that they should aspire to make a difference.

Grace Lee Boggs

Grace Lee Boggs was a Chinese American womxn who demonstrated how we can and should be supporting the African American community unconditionally. She fought for racial justice alongside the Black Panther. She was also a philosopher and gardener having taken over vacant lots to plant gardens. She modeled how to navigate cross-racial spaces and to use Asian privilege to support and advance cross-racial work for all.

Maizie Hirono and Patsy Mink

US Senator Maizie Hirono and former Congressmember Patsy Mink are both from Hawaii. I remember hearing their names as I was growing up as a young child in Hawaii. Both Japanese American women grew up during a time when women were breaking more and more into politics but faced thick glass and bamboo ceilings. CM Mink was the first women of color to serve in Congress, serving in the US House of Representatives for 12 terms from 1956-2002, and was instrumental in ensuring Title IX was passed guaranteeing more gender parity in higher education. Senator Hirono is the first Asian immigrant to serve in the Senate and the first Buddhist. She was told to step aside for male counterparts, she told them no it was her turn and they could wait. Badasses, both of them.

Many more notables politicians, activist, educators, and a few business leaders:

  • Congressmember Pramila Jayapal, Indian American
  • Senator Tammy Duckworth, Thai White
  • Senator Kamala Harris, Jamaican and Indian
  • Yuri Kochiyama, thanks to Ryan O for sharing this homage
  • Haunani Kay Trask, Native Hawaiian poet, academic, and activist
  • Indra Nooyi, CEO at PepsiCo., Indian American
  • Mia Tuan, Dean UW College of Education, as a friend explained a female college dean of color is like a unicorn and one we should treasure and hopefully create a heard of unicorns
  • Amanda Nguyen (featured in the artwork), CEO of Rise, sexual assault victims advocate — she powered through important legislative changes to fix laws adversely impacting victims. [Editor’s note – thank you to Jenny S. for bringing Amanda’s contributions to my attention.]

Moving to Sports

When I tried to think of Asian American athletes all I came up with was Kristi Yamaguchi, if I broaden to include men I came up with baseball star Ichiro and Yao Ming – pretty sad list. Thankfully friends offered me the following and when I started researching I found many more:

  • Shelma Jun, climber, bringing other women to climbing
  • Chloe Kim, snowboarder, Olympic gold medalist, Korean American
  • Ashima Shiraishi, 17-year old climber who reached the level of v15 (out of 16 levels) – go watch some of her videos, omg my arms burn just watching. Japanese American
  • Naomi Osaka, tennis, Grand Slam champion, Haitian and Japanese. Osaka represented Japan in the Grand Slam but lives in the US.
  • Naomi Mulitauaopele, basketball – played for the WNBA, and was the first Samoan Pacific Islander to graduate from Stanford University
  • Sanoe Lake, surfer – Hawaiian, Japanese, and English

Artist to Inspire

In the arts we see a breadth and depth of the API experience.

  • Stella Abrera, Filipina ballerina, principal dancer, becoming the first appointed Filipina-American woman with American Ballet Theatre. Ballet has been a very white-held space with diversity exclusion. Way to go Stella, #PinayPower!
  • Ruth Asawa, sculptor and wire artist. She learned to draw while at a US internment/concentration camp. Japanese American
  • Celeste Ng, author, Chinese American
  • Amy Tan, author, The Joy Luck Club was one of the first ‘adult’ novels I read as a middle or high schooler. It remains one of the few fiction books I remember reading, as friends know I don’t read a lot of fiction so this is high praise from me. Chinese American
  • Zaha Hadid, architect, Middle Eastern (including because I want to include a Middle Eastern womxn)
  • Sandra Oh, actress, Korean Canadian (including because her work is seen in the US)
  • Maggie Q, actress on Designated Survivor (my current binge watch on Netflix – thus this actress is top of mind), Vietnamese White
  • Daya Vaidya, actress, Nepalese Spanish Italian
  • Luly Yang, fashion designer

There are so many other Asian American womxn to name. I didn’t get to social services, medicine, and other fields. We’ll save those stories for another post.

Note on spelling: I have purposefully chosen to use the spelling of womxn vs. women for this post.

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