Asian women, the immigrant generation, entered Hawai’i, when it was a kingdom and subsequently a US territory, and the Western US continent, from the 1840s to the 1930s as part of a global movement of people escaping imperial wars, colonialism, and homeland disorder. Most were wives or picture brides from China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and South Asia, joining menfolk who worked overseas to escape poverty and strife. Women also arrived independently; some on the East Coast. US immigration laws restricting the entry of Asian male laborers also limited Asian women.
Asian women were critical for establishing Asian American families and ensuring such households’ survival and social mobility. They worked on plantations, in agricultural fields and canneries, as domestics and seamstresses, and helped operate family businesses, while doing housework, raising children, and navigating cultural differences. Their activities gave women more power in their families than by tradition and shifted gender roles toward more egalitarian households. Women’s organizations, and women’s leadership, ideas, and skills contributed to ethnic community formation.
Second generation (US-born) Asian American women grew up in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and negotiated generational as well as cultural differences. Some were mixed race, namely, biracial or multiracial. Denied participation in many aspects of American youth culture, they formed ethnic-based clubs and organizations and held social activities that mirrored mainstream society. Some attended college. A few broke new ground professionally.
Asian and Asian American women were diverse in national origin, class, and location. Both generations faced race and gender boundaries in education, employment, and public spaces, and they were active in civic affairs to improve their lives and their communities’ well-being. Across America, they marched, made speeches, and raised funds to free their homelands from foreign occupation and fought for racial and gender equality in the courts, workplaces, and elsewhere.