7 trailblazing Asian American And Pacific Islander women you should know

Mazie Hirono, amy tan, jenny han
Photos: US Senate/AP Photo/Jenny Han

Hate crimes against Asian Americans have increased significantly in the last year across the U.S., as well as in Canada, with women being the main targets of these attacks. In Los Angeles alone, hate crimes against Asian Americans doubled in 2020 from the previous year, according to the Los Angeles Police Department.

In the wake of this alarming trend, many Asian American women have stepped forward to speak out against this injustice and to protect vulnerable communities. In an inspiring decision, a 76-year-old Asian American woman who was attacked on the streets of San Francisco before fighting back and injuring the assailant is donating the hundreds of thousands of dollars that were raised for her on GoFundMe to organizations that are helping to combat racism and uplift Asian American people.

In her honor and in celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, here are seven trailblazing Asian American women who have made a lasting positive impact on the world.

Patsy Takemoto Mink

In 1964, Patsy Takemoto Mink became the first Asian American woman — and the first woman of color in general — to serve in Congress. Born in Hawaii and descended from Japanese grandparents, Mink faced many obstacles due to prejudice against her sex and her heritage. While attending college in Nebraska, she was segregated from the dorms that housed white students but worked to end that racist practice on the campus in an early display of her leadership. Mink went on to law school at the University of Chicago and later became the first Japanese-American woman to practice law in Hawaii.

Mink eventually went into politics, where she championed causes like affordable childcare and gender equality. Mink was one of the supporters and authors of Title IX legislation, which ensured that girls and women would have equal access to athletic programs and activities which receive federal funding.

“It is easy enough to vote right and be consistently with the majority,” Mink once said. “But it is more often more important to be ahead of the majority and this means being willing to cut the first furrow in the ground and stand alone for a while if necessary.”

patsy mink nancy pelosi 1994
Laura Patterson/Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-38887

Kalpana Chawla

On Nov. 19, 1997, astronaut and aerospace engineer Kalpana Chawla entered space with a six-person crew on the Space Shuttle Columbia flight STS-87, becoming the first woman of Indian origin to go to space. On her second mission to space aboard the STS-107 mission in 2003, Chawla contributed to almost 80 experiments which helped to broaden our understanding of earth science and the solar system.

Tragically, the Space Shuttle disintegrated on its way back to Earth’s atmosphere, claiming her life and the lives of six other crew members. But her legacy lives on, especially in India, where a Bollywood biopic about her life is reportedly in production.

First Asian American woman in space

Rose Pak

Rose Pak emigrated from China to San Francisco when she was 16 years old. In the 1970s, Pak became a vociferous, colorful political activist who fought hard against corruption in her city, notably championing Asian American causes and becoming one of Chinatown’s biggest advocates.

Not everyone liked Pak’s brash leadership style, but the woman herself acknowledged the bigotry behind the way the press and her critics treated her. When The New York Times ran a piece calling her a “power broker,” Pak remarked, “If I was white, they’d call me a civic leader.”

Pak passed away in 2016 at the age of 68, but her legacy is kept alive with the newly christened Chinatown Rose Pak Station, for which she helped to raise funds. Not everyone wanted the Muni station named after such a controversial character, but others championed the cause, saying Pak inspired them to speak out and find their own political voice.

“I’m a part of a movement of young women of color, who are being politically active … because of Rose Pak,” said San Francisco resident Hae Min Cho at a San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency board meeting. “Everybody here knows who Martin Luther King is, who Cesar Chavez is. Rose Pak is our leader.”

Asian American woman activist

Jenny Han

Jenny Han is the author of “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” a New York Times bestseller that has now spawned several popular films on Netflix. But her work is more than just entertaining and romantic fare; it’s also offers the rare chance to see an Asian American character be the star of a romantic story, rather than the comedic sidekick. Han fought hard to keep Hollywood from “whitewashing” her Asian American protagonist, Lara Jean, telling Teen Vogue that it was very difficult to find producers who would stay true to her vision.

“I think that one of the biggest struggles with it was to find the right partners who would agree to cast an Asian American family, and to have Lara Jean, specifically, be Asian,” Han said. “That was the biggest challenge.”

Fortunately, Han refused to allow her work to be altered, creating books and films that pay homage to Asian American families and the struggle of growing up as an Asian American girl.

Asian American women writers
Jenny Han

Victoria Draves

Victoria Manalo Draves was a competitive diver who shot to fame at the 1948 Summer Olympics, where she became the first Asian American woman to win a gold medal. She was also the first American woman in general to win two gold medals in diving. Draves, whose father was Filipino, couldn’t afford swimming lessons until she was about 10 years old, but, despite her late start at swimming, her determination and natural athletic aptitude led her to join a local diving club.

“We were just a very poor family, and there was no opportunity to extend on those desires,” Draves said in an oral history of her journey, published the The Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles. “I was really kind of afraid of the water.”

It was not just poverty that stood in her way. Due to racism, Draves was denied entry into the San Francisco swim club she wanted to join and was pressured to switch from her father’s last name to her white mother’s maiden name, going by Vicki Taylor, rather than Vicki Manalo, to be coached at all. Later in life, she became an advocate for Filipino immigrants and she spent her later years raising money and giving back to her hometown of San Francisco before dying in 2010 at the age of 85.

Asian American women athletes

Mazie Hirono

Born in Japan, Mazie Keiko Hirono emigrated to Hawaii at the age of 7. Despite a very difficult early childhood marked by poverty and instability, Hirono was devoted to her studies and went on to earn her law degree from Georgetown University Law Center. Later Hirono became the first Asian American to ever serve in the U.S. Senate and the first elected woman to represent Hawaii in the Senate.

“As an immigrant who grew up under difficult circumstances, I recognize that my path to the Senate was unlikely,” wrote Hirono in her online bio at the Senate’s website. “At the same time, my experiences have shown me the incredible opportunities available in America and have fueled my desire to give back.”

In recent months, Hirono has worked hard to combat hate crimes against Asian Americans, backing legislation that will enhance federal reporting of these crimes and empower victims to speak out about their own experiences.

Asian American women in politics
U.S. Senate

Amy Tan

No list of influential Asian American women would be complete without the inclusion of American author Amy Tan, who was born to Chinese immigrants. After a difficult childhood that included the deaths of her father and brother when she was 15, Tan earned a bachelor’s in English and Linguistics and went on to get a master’s in Linguistics, working post-graduation as a language development specialist for children with disabilities. After freelancing as a business writer, she found great success with her first novel, “The Joy Luck Club,” which spent 40 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List and is now viewed as an American classic.

On Twitter, Tan has been very candid about her experiences with racism, recalling how people will sometimes tell her to “go back where you came from,” which would actually be Oakland, California.

“Racism is not just hate,” Tan tweeted recently. “It can also be a dismissive attitude toward any opinion you express, or stubbornly held ignorance that does not allow for a respectful relationship. It can be resentment that you are here, or a belief that you are the ‘other’ and will never be ‘us.'”

Asian American women
Good News, News

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About the Author
Bridget Sharkey
Bridget Sharkey is a freelance writer covering pop culture, beauty, food, health and nature. Visit Scripps News to see more of Bridget's work.

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