It is fair to state that the status of Asian American women before 1950s was not any better than that suffered by minorities from any racial-ethnic group during this period. This is amply attested by first-hand accounts of discrimination and maltreatment by early immigrants. We also have copious legal indictments handing penalties, jail sentences and deportations to early wave of Asian immigrants to the ‘land of the free’. Considering that it was beginning from the second half of the 19th century that steady streams of Asian immigration poured into America, it is apt to claim that their struggle spanned a century, ending with the Civil Rights movement of 1960s. Prior to this the community endured a century of hardships that mitigated their integration into mainstream American socio-culture. If racial prejudice was a sizeable challenge on its own, the issues were compounded for womenfolk. The rest of this essay is an overview of the Asian American experience prior to 1950. Sociological theories on ‘gender’ and ‘intersectionality’ were perused as were classic literary works and essays pertaining to the subject.
It is instructive to look at theoretical perspectives that make lucid the Asian American women’s experience before 1950. During much of the evolution of sociology, studying history and society through the axis of gender was not common practice. Race, ethnicity, age, class and nation were the common definitive parameters for groups that were studied. Understanding socio-history from the perspective of gender was mainly an offshoot of feminist movements of mid-twentieth century. The second wave feminist movement was especially instrumental in introducing this approach. The relational identities of women of 19th century as either someone’s daughter, husband or mother is fully applicable to Asian American women. The word ‘gender’ is used frequently in common parlance synonymous with the word ‘sex’ thereby betraying a biological determinism to the classification. But sociologists have sharpened its definition to stress the
“relational aspect of normative definitions of femininity…accordingly, women and men were defined in terms of one another, an no understanding of either could be achieved by entirely separate study…the goal is to discover the range in sex roles and in sexual symbolism in different societies and periods, to find out what meaning they had and how they functioned to maintain the social order or to promote its change”. (Scott, 1986)
Seen in the backdrop of this theoretical framework, it is fair to claim that Asian American women had a decidedly more arduous century prior to 1950 than their male counterparts. This is evident in the literary works of the time, especially that of Jade Snow Wong’s ‘Fifth Chinese Daughter’. The short novel is filled with real life events of the author as she lived through the transition from a native Chinese culture steeped in tradition and the more liberal outlook afforded in America. The book shows the patriarchal familial set up among the Chinese and how this can be a hindrance for immigrant women looking to avail of opportunities for personal and professional growth in the New World.