On one end of the spectrum of stereotypes Asian American women must deal with, there’s Exotic. Subservient. Quiet. Model Minority. On the other, Manipulative. Overbearing. Dragon Lady (a reference to Empress Dowager Tzu-hsi of China). Missing from these common images are the voices of actual Asian women, who came to bear the brunt of these stereotypes through centuries of colonialism and racism.
Published in 1997, Dragon Ladies: Asian American Feminists Breathe Fire is a collection of essays and interviews from Asian American activists. Many express their frustrations with white feminism (the mainstream feminism most people are familiar with), and some reject the feminist label altogether. Several of the authors also express frustration at people’s reactions to the Asian American feminist movement: within their own cultures, claiming oneself as “feminist” can be seen as unfeminine and offensive. In society in general, some have trouble even wrapping their heads around the concept of “Asian American feminism;” the term just seems so incompatible with stereotypes of Asian women. However, as all of the authors prove, feminist activism has been around a long time in the Asian community, and the Asian American feminist movement continues to grow.
The book is split into four parts: Strategies and Visions; An Agenda for Change; Global Perspectives; and Awakening to Power. Regardless of the theme of each section, there is definite overlap in the essays. The Asian American feminism that all of these activists speak of has a global aspect; yes, these women are based in the U.S., but because so much of their work focuses on issues related to immigration and labor rights, an awareness of different cultures and issues is necessary.
They also discuss their frustrations within their respective Asian communities. Just like the African American and Latin@ American communities can’t be seen as a monolith, neither can the Asian American community. There’s a sense that, yes, they are all Asian and share some of the same histories and cultural values. But there’s also the possibility of specific identities getting ignored when everyone gets lumped together; some South Asian activists, for instance, expressed frustration at their identities not even registering as “Asian” to some people, who tend to think of “Asian” as Chinese or Japanese. Other activists spoke of their causes being rendered less visible by their respective communities because they didn’t want their “negative” aspects (such as LGBTQ and HIV activism) to reflect on the larger community as a whole.
A common sentiment in several of the essays was the frustration with the mainstream feminist movement. One of my favorite chapters, “On Asian America, Feminism, and Agenda-Making: A Roundtable Discussion” explored some of these issues and Asian Americans’ reticence to identify as feminists. Pamela Chiang states,
Personally, I feel that a lot of the agenda has been a white, middle-class one. I’m one of the young people here; my generation of coming into this is different, but my personal experience is that their agenda is a little off from what poor women and women of color face….When I organized with Latina garment workers from Texas, we would approach these national institutions for support. With a little bit of effort, they would wax and wane. But they don’t speak to our issues.
Helen Zia responds:
[T]here is a real problem of white privilege and racism that exist in the women’s organizations that are predominantly white. An “old girls” network has evolved. All of us who have worked in coalitions or within programs where the leadership is dominated by white women have encountered it. I’ve worked within one of the publications that is identified as part of the mainstream white women’s movement [Ms. Magazine]. Trying to get other races and classes represented within the pages of the magazine took a consistent and conscious struggle.
Later in the book, Grace Chang’s “The Global Trade in Filipina Workers” also discusses the ways mainstream feminism has thrown Asian feminism under the bus:
Mainstream U.S. feminist responses to the trade in women have been lukewarm at best. When [the Gabriela Network] called on women’s organizations around the world to put the issue of global trafficking of women on their agendas, the National Organization for Women (NOW) declined to do so, saying that it does not deal with international issues. The real issue may be that privileged women of the First World, even self-avowed feminists, are some of the primary consumers and beneficiaries of this trade. Middle- and upper-class professional women generally have not joined efforts to improve wages or conditions for care workers in the United States, since they have historically relied on the “affordability” of women of color and migrant women in their homes, daycare centers, and nursing homes.
The activists featured in this collection have figured out culturally relevant ways to help their communities where mainstream feminism has failed (or has outright ignored). They’re working hard to destigmatize “private” or “shameful” topics like domestic violence and health education using methods that the people in their community can find empowering. My only regret is the age of the book; it’s now out of print, the statistics are no longer current, and unfortunately, it was published just before the internet revolution really took off. I know the latter point has nothing to do with content, but I would have loved to see how (or if) technology has affected their activism. Since they were already doing amazing work in terms of global feminism, it would be interesting to see how technology has facilitated their networking and outreach.
Dragon Ladies: Asian American Feminists Breathe Fire was originally released in 1997 by South End Press and reprinted in 1999.