Tina Tchen Executive Director of the White House Council on Women and Girls 2015 4c138

12 Women and Non-Binary Asian Americans You Should Know About

by Gracie Western

As a part-Thai, American woman, I was appalled to learn just two days before the end of the month that May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. As I bury my head in shame, I can’t help but also feel angry – after all, there’s a reason I made it a full 29 days into the month without anyone I knew, or any of the media sites I frequented, bringing it up. Asian American visibility has been continuously minimized and white-washed throughout U.S. history, and the effects are palpable: Asian Americans make up a mere 3% of Congress, and are the least likely group in the United States to be promoted to management, while Asian American women only made up .7% (less than one percent!) of the roles in Hollywood’s top films.

While I could go on and on about the unique gendered racialization I’ve experienced as an exotified, fetishized object of male attention (yeah – people actually say shit like “I have yellow fever for you”), this month is also about celebrating the phenomenal women and non-binary Asian Americans who have and continue to do incredible work to break down barriers in advocacy, politics, entertainment, and, of course, feminism. I’ve collected a small list of the countless badasses that make me proud to be an Asian American woman – some of which you will definitely have heard of, but a lot that I didn’t even know before two days ago. So, let’s get crackin’ – and educatin’.

1. Mabel Ping-Hua LeeMabel 8159fVia Wikimedia Commons / Harris & Ewing

To start off this list, let me present to you the amazing Mabel Ping Hua-Lee (1897-1966), who was the first woman ever to receive a Ph.D from Columbia University, and an outspoken suffragette who advocated tirelessly for women’s rights, leading Chinese and Chinese American women in pro-suffrage parade in 1917 while riding a literal fucking horse. If that’s not feminist idol goals, than I don’t know what is. Unfortunately, when women were afforded the right to vote in New York City later that year, Mabel Ping Hua-Lee was still unable to do so, because of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 – reminding us that intersectional feminism (thank you, Kimberlé Crenshaw) is so, so important.

2. Yuri Kochiyama

480px Yuri Kochiyama 1 7bc17Via Wikimedia Commons / dignidadrebelde

Yuri Kochiyama (1921-2014) was a lifelong activist who dedicated her time to an array of radical political agendas, including black nationalism, Puerto Rican independence, anti-war advocacy, and Asian American liberation, after experiencing Japanese internment as a child. She was a close friend of Malcolm X, holding his head in her hands as he laid dying after his assassination. She founded Asian Americans for Action, which fought for reparations for Japanese-Americans post their imprisonment and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 for her relentless commitment to social justice.

3. Jeanie Jew

Via Wikimedia Commons / Michael Keller

It would be a disgrace to leave out the woman we have to thank for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Jeanie Jew, who was a Capitol Hill Staffer and a member of the Organization of Chinese Americans when she became frustrated with the lack of Asian American representation in the United States’ bicentennial celebrations of 1975. She similarly hoped to recognize her family history, and in particular, that of her great-grandfather, who helped to build the transcontinental railroad, but was murdered as a result of anti-Chinese sentiment. She introduced the idea of a honorary week to Congressman Frank Horton, who pushed the bill through in 1992, extending the commemoration to a month, with unanimous support from the House and the Senate.

4. Mazie Hirono

Mazie Hirono Official 8d6daVia Wikimedia Commons / U.S. Congress

Mazie Hirono (1947-Present), whose Japanese name is Keiko Hirono, is currently serving as a Senator representing Hawaii, making her the first woman Senator from Hawaii and the first Asian American woman elected to the Senate. Not only that, but as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee she has asked every single nominee whether they have committed sexual harassment, proving herself to stand in solidarity with members of the #MeToo movement, and survivors of sexual assault. This self-made political superstar has been consistently endorsed by EMILY’s List for Pro-Choice women, her support becoming increasingly more important as reproductive rights are being challenged across the nation. At 70, she even liberally makes use of the word “bullshit” in media interviews, to call out, well, bullshit. The more I read about Mazie Hirono, the more I wish she was my grandma. I’m sorry, Koonya, but I think I should be allowed to have three grandmas. It’s 2019.

5. Helen Zia

HZ Notebook smile crop1 IMG 0798 Edit 768x945 1 f9acaVia Helen Zia’s Website

Helen Zia (1953-Present), graduated from Princeton University’s first coed class, becoming a hardcore activist for Asian American, LGBTQ+, and women’s rights. Before becoming a journalist/writer, and former Executive Editor of the feminist Ms. Magazine, Zia dabbled in small range of possible careers, including medical school, community organizing, and even work in construction and in the auto industry (okay, but seriously, how cool is that?!). While living in Detroit, Helen Zia helped to generate community outrage and Asian American support after the racist murder of Vincent Chin by two, white autoworkers, helping to assure a legal response, guaranteeing that federal civil rights charges would be brought to those who commited the crime. All in all, Helen Zia proves that one woman can actually do it all.

6. Tina Tchen

Tina Tchen Executive Director of the White House Council on Women and Girls 2015 05fbfVia Wikimedia Commons / NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

Tina Tchen (1956-Present) is a seasoned lawyer who has worked everywhere from Washington D.C., as Michelle Obama’s Chief of Staff and Executive Director of the White House Council on Women and Girls, to Hollywood, as the head lawyer of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund. Her work for the Time’s Up campaign has helped to combat sexual violence in the labor force, through legal action against companies who perpetuate harassment, and seeking gender parity in the entertainment industry. Self-proclaimed “forever mom, advocate, and activist” on her Twitter, Tina Tchen fights for the rights and safety of women, whether they are in the top 1% or struggling to make ends meet.

7. Margaret Cho

mc.13 1 428x641 1 dce6cVia Margaret Cho’s Website / Sergio Garcia

Margaret Cho (1967-Present), longtime BUST friend and former cover star, is a Korean American stand-up comedian and actress who I personally admire for unabashedly weaving commentary on race, gender, and sexuality into her hilarious stand-up routines. She was nominated for an Emmy Award in 2012 for her guest starring role on 30 Rock. Beyond her career accomplishments, Margaret Cho is a survivor of extreme sexual violence, and has experience working as a phone sex operator, as well as dominatrix. Her comedy brutally and importantly recounts her experiences as an Asian American woman, struggling with all things eating disorders, sexuality, addiction, and racism. Cho is effortlessly funny, powerfully political, and overall an incredible role model for girls like me who hope to push into the too-white, too-male industry of comedy to talk about social justice.

8. Priyanka Chopra Jonas 

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A post shared by Priyanka Chopra Jonas (@priyankachopra) on

Via Priyanka Chopra Jonas’ Instagram / Nicolas Gerardin

Priyanka Chopra Jonas (1982-Present) is an Indian actress and singer whose humanitarian efforts have raised awareness for issues of female infanticide, education for women and girls, and gender pay inequality. A self-proclaimed feminist, Priyanka is similarly outspoken about her unique experience within Hollywood as a woman of color, continuously fighting to be treated equally as her white and male counterparts. She even own the production company, Purple Pebble Productions, with her mother, Dr. Madhu Chopra, which is honestly mother-daughter goals.

9. Song Yang (Yang Song)

FEMEN Patrol New Season Start d9eddVia Wikimedia Commons / Yaroslav DebelyiSong Yang (or Yang Song in U.S. name ordering), emigrated from China in 2013, and began doing sex work in New York City in order to help provide for her family. She faced multiple arrests for prostitution, and was sexually assaulted by a client before she fell four stories to her death in Queens during a police raid in 2017. Her tragic death, which the police have claimed was a suicide that they were not present for, has raised concerns in the policing and criminalization of sex workers, particularly within vulnerable immigrant and low-income communities. In New York City, the arrests of Asian and Asian American sex workers increased 2,700% percent between 2012 and 2016, according to a report from the Urban Institute and the Legal Aid Society. Song Yang’s death continues to galvanize support for sex workers, and advocacy against policing and human trafficking.

10. Hasna Maznavi

Screen Shot 2019 05 31 at 12.41.21 PM 37705Via Oregon State University

Hasna Maznavi (1986-Present), whose parents are Sri Lankan, founded the first ever Women’s Mosque of America (and now serves as its President) in 2015, hoping to intentionally designate a space for women in the Islamic tradition, and to give women a principal role within the mosque community. Her mosque is the first of its kind in the United States, following the lead of other countries internationally. The mosque welcomes all to worship there, however services are only held by women. Outside of this groundbreaking achievement, Maznavi is also a WGA comedy writer and director.

11. Ny Nourn 

800px Protest against the deportation of immigrants 38905686225 15ee4Via Wikimedia Commons / Fibonacci Blue

Ny Nourn, a Cambodian immigrant, was shackled and detained by ICE just moments after she was freed from her 16-year long incarceration. In 2017 she faced the threat of deportation to a country she had never even lived in, as she was born in Thai refugee camp after her mother had fled genocide in Cambodia. Once living in the United States, Nourn, age 17, was abused sexually, verbally, and physically by her a boyfriend, a grown man of 34 years old (twice her age). Once he found out that she had slept with another man, her boss, he demanded that Nourn help him to kill the boss, threatening to murder her if she didn’t comply. Despite the extreme abuse and manipulation Nourn faced, she was found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to life without parole, which was then changed to 15 years to life, with Nourn getting parole in early 2017. With an outcry of support from incarceration, domestic violence, and immigration advocates, Nourn was able to leave ICE custody after her bond was granted. Since her release, Ny Nourn has turned her personal experiences with trauma into motivation to help other women, especially those incarcerated, in abusive relationships, and facing deportation. She has certification as a substance abuse counselor and seeks to attend college for a degree in Sociology.

12. Emma Sulkowicz

Emma Sulkowicz 14 December 2014 1 cadbfVia Wikimedia Commons / Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation

Emma Sulkowicz (1992-Present), who identifies as gender non-conforming and uses they/them pronouns, launched into the national spotlight in 2014 when they embarked on “Mattress Project” as their senior thesis project, after experiencing sexual assault at Columbia University and facing the utter failure on her college’s part in adequately responding to the case. They carried a 50 pound mattress around campus for the entirety of the academic year, even bringing the mattress onstage for graduation. Sulkowicz’s art highlighted the issue of sexual violence on college campuses that had until very recently been largely swept under the rug by administrations and campus culture. Sulkowicz continues to create art, expanding their portfolio and demanding that the world see them as more than “Mattress Girl.”

I tried my best to choose role models that illustrate the huge diversity that makes up Asian Americans (we are not a monolith!), but I apologize, as representation is certainly lacking. Similarly, I want to recognize that I am pretty white-passing, and therefore will never share certain experiences of racism to the same degree as my brown-er sxsters. 

Top photo via Wikimedia Commons

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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