10 AAPI women you should know (but probably have never heard of)

In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I’m doing a mini blog series. Last week, I talked about the reasons why I’m celebrating this month, and this week I want to highlight 10 AAPI women you should know but may have never heard of.

Many thanks to the Progressive Asian American Christian Facebook group and the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum for exposing me to many of these stories, along with countless others.

  1. Afong Moy (1819-????)


Image of Afong Moy- Exhibited as the “Chinese Lady”

Afong Moy is known in history as the first Chinese woman to set foot on U.S. soil, in 1834. She was brought to the U.S. at the age of 19 by two showmen- the Carne brothers- who changed her name, rented an exhibition hall, and shown off for a cost. Moy was displayed as the “Chinese Lady” on November 6, 1834, and the public was allowed to see her from the hours of 10am-2pm or 5pm-9pm, witnessing such “exotic” things as Moy eating with chopsticks, speaking Chinese, or walking around the room with her bound feet.

While some newspapers decried the actions of the Carne brothers, Moy remained on display throughout the country from 1834–1847. The exoticizing and commodification of her body, as an Asian woman, was the beginning of such trends in the country.

It is unknown if she ever returned to China or remained in America, and no historic record exists regarding her death.

2) Queen Liliʻuokalani (1838–1917)


Queen Liliʻuokalani was the last sovereign of the Kamehameha dynasty, which had ruled a unified Hawaiian kingdom since 1810. Born Lydia Kamakaeha, she became crown princess in 1877, after the death of her youngest brother made her the heir apparent to her elder brother, King Kalakaua.

By the time she took the throne herself in 1891, a new Hawaiian constitution had removed much of the monarchy’s powers in favor of an elite class of businessmen and wealthy landowners (many of them American). When Liliʻuokalani acted to restore these powers, a U.S. military-backed coup deposed her in 1893 and formed a provisional government; Hawaii was declared a republic in 1894 and Queen Liliʻuokalani was imprisoned for eight months in the ‘Iolani palace.

As leader of the “Stand Firm” (Oni pa’a) movement, Liliʻuokalani fought steadfastly against U.S. annexation of Hawaii. She even traveled to Washington to try and convince Grover Cleveland to restore the Hawaiian monarchy, to no success. The United States annexed Hawaii in 1898.

3) Miné Okubo (1912–2001)


Miné Okubo was a Japanese-American artist and author, who recorded her what she saw, felt, and endured through Japanese internment in 2,000 drawings and a book. Born to Japanese immigrants in Riverside, CA, she received a master’s degree in art from UC Berkeley and was working with the Works Progress Administration in San Francisco when the bombing of Pearl harbor and the passing of EO 9066 caused her and other members of her family to be interned for two years.

She and her brother were sent to live in an “assembly center” in San Bruno, CA for almost a half year in a former horse stall, before being relocated to the Topaz Relocation center in the Utah desert for 2 years.

Her famous book, Citizen 13660, contains text and 206 drawings from her experience in the camps, where she recorded everything in sketches, drawings, and paintings because photographs were not permitted.

4) Susan Ahn Cuddy (1915–2015)


Susan Ahn Cuddy was born in Los Angeles in 1915 to the first Korean couple to settle in California. Her family home in Los Angeles became a haven for many newly arrived Korean immigrants, including many exiled Korean patriots who fought against the Japanese occupation of Korea.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, she became the first Asian-American woman to join the U.S. Navy, serving as a trainer of pilots, a gunnery officer and eventually a code breaker. She continued in the code-breaking craft in Washington after the war, for Naval Intelligence and the NSA, and rose in leadership, even to the disdain of many of her white, male colleagues. In 1947 Cuddy also married Chief Petty Officer Francis X. “Frank” Cuddy, an Irish-American breaking the anti-miscegenation laws of that time.

In her elder years, she remained active, speaking at Navy functions and Korean American community events, for causes of justice. She lived to the age of 100.

5) Kartar Dhillon (1915–2008)


Kartar Dhillon was born in 1915 in Simi Valley. Her father, Bakhshish Sing had immigrated to the U.S. in 1897, and her mother, Rattan Kaur, arrived in 1910. As one of the first south Asian families in the U.S,, her parents founded the Gadar Party, to fight for Indian independence from British Rule.

Throughout her life, she was active in various liberation movements, including the work of the Gadar party, the Black Panther Party, farm workers’ movement, and the Korean reunification movement. She also worked in many different jobs, including as a machinist and truck driver for the Marine Corps, a crop-picker, a waitress, a secretary for the city of San Francisco, and leader of the Teamsters and Abestos Workers Union.

In 1989, she wrote “Parrot’s Beak,” an autobiographical essay which was published in Making Waves: An Anthology of Writings By and About Asian American Women. She received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Punjabi American Heritage Society and is included in Distinguished Asian Americans: A Biographical Dictionary.

6) Patsy Takemoto Mink (1927–2002)


Patsy Mink was the first woman of color and the first Asian American elected to Congress. Born in Hawaii to second-generation Japanese American parents, she had a long history of leaderhip. She was the first Japanese American to be president and valedictorian of her high school, and was elected president of the Unaffiliated Students of the University of Nebraska, where she lobbied the university to end segregation policies.

In 1965, she became the first Asian American woman (and first woman of color) to be elected to Congress. She is also credited with persuading the Democratic Party to continue their progressive stances on Civil Rights and desegregation in the 1960s. She delivered a state of the Union response in 1970, becoming the first Democratic woman to do so, and in 1972 became the first Asian American woman to seek the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party.

She is known for introducing comprehensive Early Childhood Education Policies and authoring Title IX, which bans gender discrimination in federally funded education. President Barack Obama awarded her a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom on November 24, 2014.

7) Sugar Pie De Santo (1935-present)


Sugar Pie DeSanto was born Umpeylila Marsema Balinton to a Filipino father and African American mother in 1935. She spent most of her early life in San Francisco, and was eventually discovered by Johnny Otis in 1955. Otis gave her the stage name Sugar Pie, and her music career began to flourish. During the 1950s and 60s, she rose to national prominence by touring with artists such as James Brown, and her single “I want to Know” reached number four on billboard’s Hot R&B chart.

DeSanto is in the R&B Hall of Fame, has won the Rhythm and Blues Foundation’s Pioneer Award and is the recipient of a Bay Area Music Award for Best Female Blues Singer. She also received a lifetime achievement award from the Goldie Awards in November 2009.

She is still touring today, at the age of 82.

8) May Chen (1948-present)


May Chen is a Chinese American labor organizer, activist, and advocate for immigrant workers. She was born and raised in the suburbs of Boston, but moved to New York City in 1979, where she began working in union organizing. In 1982, Chen organized and led the NY Chinatown Strike, which involved about 20,000 garment factory workers demanding work contracts, higher wages, improved working conditions, and fairness and respect from their employers. The strike caused employers to hold back on wage cuts and withdraw their demands that workers give up holidays and benefits, paving the way for better working conditions for many groups of immigrant workers.

She also joined the International ladies’ Garment Workers Union in 1983, worked with labor organizations such as the Asian Labor Committee of New York and became the founding member of the AfL-CIO’s Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance.

9) Kalpana Chawla (1962–2003)


Kalpana Chawla was an American astronaut and the first woman of Indian origin to go into outer space. She was born in Karnal, India in 1962 and after getting a degree in Aeronautical Engineering from Punjab Engineering College, moved to the U.S. to study aerospace engineering at the University of Texas in Arlington. She graduated with her Master of Science degree in 1984 and went to earn a second Masters and PhD in 1988.

After working at NASA as a researcher for several years, she became a naturalized U.S. citizen and applied for the NASA Astronaut Corps. She was selected for her first flight in 1996 and first flew on Space Shuttle Columbia in 1997 as a mission specialist and primary robotic arm operator for STS-87. In 2003, during her second flight into space as part of the STS-107 mission, the Columbia space shuttle disintegrated during re-entry. She and the other six crew members were all killed.

Chawla was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, and several streets, universities and institutions have been named in her honor.

10) Jane Luu (1963-present)


Dr. Jane Luu is a Vietnamese American astronomer who was awarded the Kavli Prize for discovering and characterizing the Kuiper Belt and its largest members. She grew up in South Vietnam, and after the fall of the South Vietnamese government, she and her family evacuated to a refugee camp, where they lived for over a month.

They eventually moved to Kentucky, where they were sponsored by an aunt. A visit to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory awakened in Jane a desire to reach the stars. She studied at Stanford, then UC Berkeley, and then MIT. After 5 years of working in tandem with David C. Jewitt, Jane discovered the Kuiper Belt, home to the planet Pluto. This work led to a major advance in the understanding of the history of our entire planetary system.

She works as a Senior Scientist at Lincoln Library.

How many of these women had you heard of?

Some others I didn’t have time to write about, both well-known and lesser-known: Kaʻahumanu, Anandi Gopal Joshi, Isabella Aiona Abbott, Sue Ko Lee, Bernice Pauahi Bishop, Yuri Kochiyama, Grace Lee Boggs, the Kim Sisters, Mitsuye Yamada, Anna Mae Wong, Hazel Ying Lee, Nellie Wong, Maxine Hong Kingston, Mazie Hirono, Mabel Lee, Cynthia Bonta, Dr. Margaret Chung, Cecilia Suyat Marshall, Helen Zia, Pramila Jayapal

Who are some other unsung or lesser-known AAPI sheroes you’d want to share?