9 AAPI Women Who Have Paved the Way in Political Activism
We’d like to honor Women’s History Month by recognizing the phenomenal Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) women leaders who have trail-blazed and contributed significantly to building power for our community. These women have pioneered movements, authored key policies, and have led campaigns into the next century. They have shaped our country and inspired us.
Here are 9 AAPI women who have been foundational to our progressive movement.
Yuri Kochiyama helped define American activism in the 20th century. Drawing from her own family’s internment and activists like Malcolm X, she advocated for issues like Black separatism, the anti-war movement, reparations for Japanese American internment, and rights for “political prisoners”. She founded the Day of Remembrance Committee to commemorate the authorization of Executive Order 9066 which initiated the removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII.
Grace Lee Boggs
Grace Lee Boggs was an American author, social activist, philosopher and feminist. She believed the positive social change came from cooperation in smaller groups, and not large revolutions. Accordingly, she and her husband founded Detroit Summer in 1992, a community movement that brought together people of all backgrounds to rebuild Detroit.
Patsy Mink was the first woman of color and the first Asian American woman elected to Congress. She was the first woman elected to Congress from the state of Hawaii, and she became the first Asian American to seek the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party. She co-authored the Title IX Amendment of the Higher Education Act (the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act) which was written to prevent discrimination in education on the basis of sex.
Haunani-Kay Trask is a Native Hawaiian academic, activist and influential figure in the Hawaiian sovereignty movement Ka Lahui Hawaii, the largest in the Islands. She was the first full-time director of the Center for Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, serving in the position for 10 years. She is also the author of the book From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawai'i.
Pramila Jayapal is the first Indian American Congresswoman, and currently represents Washington’s 7th Congressional District. She previously represented the 37th legislative district in the Washington State Senate from 2015 to 2017. Jayapal was the executive director of OneAmerica until 2012, advocating for immigrant rights. Among OneAmerica’s successes was the protection of over 4,000 Somalis from deportation after successfully suing the Bush Administration's Immigration and Naturalization Services.
Mazie Hirono is the first elected female senator from Hawaii, the first Asian American woman elected to the Senate, and the first U.S. senator born in Japan. Hirono was the only person of Asian ancestry serving in the U.S. Senate from 2013 until 2017 when Tammy Duckworth and Kamala Harris were sworn in.
Deepa Iyer is a South Asian American activist, writer, and lawyer. Her areas of expertise include the post 9/11 America experiences of South Asian, Muslim, Arab and Sikh immigrants, as well as national security and immigration issues. Iyer was the Executive Director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) where she guided SAALT’s work on civil and immigrant rights issues and community building. She’s currently a senior Fellow at Race Forward. She is the author of We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future which received a 2016 American Book Award and was one of the top 10 multicultural non-fiction books of 2015.
Dr. Hilda Heine
In 2016, Dr. Hilda Heine became the first female leader to be elected president of the Marshall Islands, which made her the first female president of any independent Pacific Island nation. Dr. Heine is a former education minister, the first Marshallese citizen to obtain a doctorate, and one of only three female members of parliament. Previously, she was the Minister of Education, the founder of the women's rights group Women United Together Marshall Islands (WUTMI), and Pacific Resources for Education and Learning's (PREL) Director at the Pacific Comprehensive Assistance Center.
Helen Zia is a Chinese American journalist and activist for Asian American and LGBTQ rights. After the murder of Vincent Chin, she was one of the journalists that demanded justice for his death. Her journalism played a crucial role in bringing federal civil rights charges against his murderers. Her groundbreaking work helped to galvanize the Asian American community. She’s been named one of the most influential Asian Americans of the decade by A. Magazine.
In addition to these trailblazing nine women, we also recognize the countless AAPI women leaders who have built our political movement.
Let’s celebrate AAPI women today and every day. We must keep fighting for policies that enhance the livelihoods of women and young girls who will grow up to become our future leaders.