Anna May Wong standing serenely in front of a camera, eyebrows arched, face perfectly poised. Kazu Iijima on a park bench with her friend Minn Masuda in 1968, wondering how to give their children a place to feel proud about their identities. Esther Hipol Simpson sketching out plans for a demonstration to help two wrongly accused Filipino nurses find justice.
Their stories show the impact that Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) women have made throughout history, from the glamor of the silver screen to the fight for civil rights. Despite the massive influence these women had, Asian Americans are sorely underrepresented in textbooks; one 2005 analysis found that of 100 Americans recommended as worthy figures for history curricula, only 4% were Native American, 1% were Latino, and none were Asian American. Bustle spoke to historians about the AAPI women they think are way overdue have their time in the spotlight.
Whether it’s Wong breaking boundaries to be a siren of Golden Age Hollywood, or Mary Tape setting in motion one of the first challenges to segregated education, AAPI women have been shaping history for generations. Here are the stories of five AAPI women in history who you should have learned about in school.
1. Anna May Wong
“Chinese American actress Anna May Wong (1905-1961) fought racial stereotypes and sought to improve the lot of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders,” Shirley Jennifer Lim, Ph.D., professor of history at Stony Brook College and author of Anna May Wong: Performing the Modern, tells Bustle. She was born in Los Angeles, and headlined her first film at 17. “Despite her talent, in the 1920s, Wong could not forge a viable Hollywood career,” in part because of racism in the U.S., Lim says, so she traveled to Europe in 1928. The move made her a global star; she starred in over 60 films and her own television series, became a celebrity, and is thought to have romanced Marlene Dietrich. “Wong fully deserves to be a household name,” Lim says. “Now is the time.”
2. Kazu Iijima
Kazu Iijima (1918-2007), a survivor of the Japanese American internment camps, was one of the co-founders of Asian Americans for Action (AAA), the first Asian-American activist group on the East Coast. “AAA began ‘with two old ladies sitting on a park bench,’ in Iijima’s words,” Vivian Truong Ph.D., a post-doctoral fellow in American Studies and Asian Studies at Vassar College, tells Bustle. Iijima and her friend Minn Matsuda, both mothers in their 50s, were inspired by the Black Power movement to create AAA. “They approached every Asian American protester they saw at anti-war demonstrations and invited them to the first meeting at Iijima’s apartment,” Truoung says. “Iijima and Matsuda decided they wanted to create a space for their children to experience pride in their identity.”
AAA would go on to protest the war in Vietnam and support Black and Puerto Rican liberation organizations. Iijima also co-founded the Organization of Asian Women and was one of the first members of the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAV).
3. Afong Moy
“The first recorded history of a Chinese woman in the United States tells the story of a ‘beautiful Chinese Lady’ transported into New York Harbor,” Leslie Bow Ph.D., professor in the Department of English and Program in Asian American Studies at the University of Wisconsin Madison, tells Bustle. This was Afong Moy, a 19-year-old Chinese woman who was coerced into traveling to the U.S. In the 1830s and ‘40s, Moy would tour the U.S. as an act, displayed for up to eight hours a day in private homes, and later in P.T. Barnum’s circus. “The spectacle of Afong Moy produced by Barnum and white traders unfortunately sutured American associations between race and exoticism that cling to Asian American women today,” Bow says.
Bow calls out Moy as an important figure from history not only because she was the first Chinese woman recorded on American soil, but because she represents the dark beginnings of the objectification of Asian-American women. “Moy’s life exceeds this tawdry snippet, but who she was and what became of her are lost to history,” Bow says. Beyond her work as an “exotic spectacle in a human zoo,” per Bow, nothing else survives of her life.
4. Esther Hipol Simpson
Esther Hipol Simpson (1945-2018), a Filipino American anti-martial law and anti-racist activist, came to work in Chicago in 1973 as a nurse. She became a well-known activist for the rights of Filipino people, and fought for justice for the nurses Filipina Narciso and Leonora Perez, who were wrongfully accused of poisoning patients in 1977.
“Esther worked with the KDP (Union of Democratic Filipinos) and the Chicago Support Group for the Defense of the Narciso-Perez Case to provide them with a proper defense and to demand a new trial,” Catherine Ceniza Choy, Ph.D., professor in the department of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Bustle. “Esther and fellow activists held forums, organized fundraisers, and coordinated demonstrations and petitions.” After a fresh trial, the case was dismissed in 1978.
“This effort was a great and noble experience working for democratic rights and justice. I would do it all again,” Simpson wrote in A Time To Rise, an anthology of Filipino activism, in 2017.
5. Mary Tape
Mary Tape was a Chinese immigrant who fought for her children to be integrated into the American public school system in the late 19th century. “Mary was indignant when her daughter, Mamie, was denied the opportunity to go to San Francisco public schools because she was Chinese American,” Melissa May Borja, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of American Culture at the University of Michigan, tells Bustle. Mary and her husband Joseph sued the San Francisco School Board in 1885, and argued that as a native-born citizen of the United States, Mamie was entitled to the free education that was every American’s birthright.
Mary wrote a letter to the Board of Education that became hugely popular, including the famous line: "Will you please to tell me! Is it a disgrace to be born Chinese?” They won their resulting case, Tape v. Hurley, in California’s Supreme Court, but California’s state legislature kept segregated school laws on their books until 1947, when Sylvia Mendez sued for the same reasons and won, setting the precedent for Brown v. Board of Education. “I love this story because it undercuts the narrative that Asian Americans don’t speak up against injustice,” Borja says.