Women’s History Month Spotlights: 8 Women Activists You Should Know
By Danielle Wong and Vivin Qiang
March is Women’s History Month, where we celebrate the accomplishments and contributions of women in the past that have laid the groundwork for women today to make history around the world. Drawing inspiration from International Women’s Day, a global holiday observed by many around the world, Congress declared the entire month of March as Women’s History Month in 1987.
As we bring March to a close, we commemorate the contributions of women this month and beyond, Advancing Justice — AAJC is spotlighting eight self-identifying women who played an integral role in advancing social justice in their communities as activists, educators, artists, caregivers, and advocates.
1. Kala Bagai
Kala Bagai, nicknamed “Mother India,” was one of the first South Asian women to arrive in San Francisco, and was a life-long community builder and advocate for immigrants.
In 1915, 22-year-old Kala, her husband, and her children immigrated to the Bay Area from then-colonized India. After opening up a general store, the Bagais’ good business allowed them to buy a home in Berkeley. However, on move-in day, racist neighbors physically barred them from moving into their own home. The family decided not to go back and instead stay in the Bay Area, but it was an experience Kala would never forget.
In 1923, the Supreme Court ruling in the case United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind revoked the citizenship of South Asian Americans, forcing early migrants to choose between returning back to the British rule they had been fleeing or remaining in a country that had stripped them of their rights. After losing everything he had worked toward, Kala’s husband took his own life. Despite the devastating loss and continued overt racial discrimination, Kala chose to push forward and ended up putting her three sons through college, re-marrying, all while working tirelessly to build bridges through arts and community until her death in 1983. In more ways than one, Kala became the welcoming figure for many new immigrants that she wished her family had.
“I told Mr. Bagai I don’t want to live in this neighborhood. I don’t want to live in this house, because they might hurt my children, and I don’t want it… We paid for the house and they locked the doors? No!” — Kala Bagai
Among the many identities she held, Zitkála-Šá of the Yankton Sioux Tribe was known as a suffragist, musician, composer, writer, and fierce protector of indigenous rights and culture.
When she was 8 years old, Zitkála-Šá was taken by Quaker missionaries to a boarding school in Indiana where she and many other indigenous children experienced the trauma of government-mandated assimilation, from being forced to cut their traditional long hair to not being able to speak in their native language. At the same time, Zitkála-Šá found joy in reading, writing, and learning violin that she went on to study at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and later taught music to children.
Zitkála-Šá’s accomplishments range from publishing one of the first books chronicling traditional Native American stories for a wider audience, to writing the text and songs for the first Native American opera called “The Sun Dance,” to co-founding and serving as the first president of the National Council of American Indians. Her lifelong advocacy for indigenous and women’s rights was integral to the passage of historic legislation, including the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 and the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.
“Few there are who have paused to question whether real life or long-lasting death lies beneath this semblance of civilization.” — Zitkála-Šá
3 & 4. Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera
Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were revolutionary LGBTQ rights activists and self-proclaimed drag performers who became close friends while fighting for transgender rights in the 1960s and 70s. They were among the first to start today’s conversation about gender nonconformity and civil rights, and were seen as mother figures for many marginalized queer youth.
Born and raised in New Jersey, Marsha P. Johnson moved to New York City after high school with just $15 and a bag of clothes. As a self-made drag queen of Christopher Street, she was infamous for her unique design and costume creation. The “P” in her name stood for “Pay It No Mind,” which was her response to questions about her gender.
“History isn’t something you look back at and say it was inevitable, it happens because people make decisions that are sometimes very impulsive and of the moment, but those moments are cumulative realities.” — Marsha P. Johnson
Sylvia Rivera grew up in New York City enduring an incredibly difficult childhood. She began experimenting with clothing and makeup at a young age, but after experiencing routine abuse at home and at school, Rivera ran away at the age of 11.
In 1963, Rivera met Johnson and the two became the first trans women of color to lead an organization in the U.S. after co-founding Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), a LGBTQ youth shelter that offered housing to homeless and transgender youth. Despite actively participating in the Stonewall Uprisings in 1969 and being leaders in the fight for gay rights, Rivera and Johnson faced growing exclusion of trans people in the movement at the time, but continued to advocate for the liberation of low-income LGBTQ people and youth of color. While they grew apart over time from different life paths and the distance from moving, Rivera honored Johnson’s legacy after her passing, including founding Transy House in Brooklyn in 1997 as a shelter for trans and gender non-conforming people in need.
“Marsha [P. Johnson] and I fought for the liberation of our people… We went out and made that money on the streets to keep these kids off the streets. We already went through it. We wanted to protect them. To show them that there was a better life.” — Sylvia Rivera
5. Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu
Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, also known to many as Kumu Hina, is a teacher, cultural practitioner, filmmaker, and community leader. She is a Native Hawaiian māhū — a traditional third gender person who occupies “a place in the middle” between male and female — as well as a modern transgender woman.
Born in Oʻahu, Wong-Kalu has been a fierce advocate for the Native Hawaiian community and their native rights, including teaching Native Hawaiian history, philosophy, and culture to empower future generations. She writes that in doing so, simply by existing as who she is, she advocates for gender equity and gender expression in a way that is consistent with her culture.
Wong-Kalu leads many community affairs and civic activities, serving as both the Chair of the O’ahu Island Burial Council and the Cultural Director of Hālau Lokahi Public Charter School. In 2020, she directed, produced, and narrated an animated short film Kapaemahu, which is based on the Hawaiian story of four legendary māhū who brought the healing arts from Tahiti to Hawai’i.
“Above all else, I am Kānaka. Kānaka is the term for native Hawaiians. And what does it mean to be mahu? It just means that I am myself. My name is Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu. I have a decent head on my shoulders about my culture. I am a teacher. And I am Hawaiian first… Aloha supersedes jealousy, it supersedes anger, and Aloha allows us to always have a commonality, regardless of our politics or gender expression.” — Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu
6. Edmonia Lewis
Edmonia Lewis, named “Wildfire” at birth, was the first internationally-renowned sculptor of African American and Native American (Mississauga Ojibwe) descent. At just 15 years old, Lewis enrolled in Oberlin College — one of the first schools to accept female and Black students — and became passionate about art through her studies. Before she was able to graduate, however, Lewis was targeted by racially-motivated false claims and discrimination that prevented her from enrolling in her final term.
After Oberlin, Lewis secured a sculpting apprenticeship in Boston and soon launched her first solo exhibition paying homage to the abolitionists and Civil War heroes of her day. The exhibition was met with widespread praise and the success allowed Lewis to move to Rome, where she began sculpting in marble with a focus on naturalism and themes relating to African American and Native American people. “The Death of Cleopatra,” one of her most famous works now on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C, and other surviving pieces have become revered physical representations of the path Lewis paved for women of color and what she stands for: self-expression through art in the face of adversity.
“I know praise is not good for me. Some praise me because I am a colored girl, and I don’t want that kind of praise. I had rather you would point out my defects, for that will teach me something.” — Edmonia Lewis
7. Kitty Tsui
Kitty Tsui is an author, poet, activist, actor, and bodybuilder who became the first known Chinese American lesbian to publish a book.
Tsui was born in Hong Kong and spent part of her childhood there and in London before her family settled in San Francisco in 1968. After coming out as lesbian at 21 years old, she was largely rejected by her family and friends, but became a key figure in the birth of the Asian American Pacific Islander queer movement in San Francisco. Tsui co-founded Unbound Feet, the first Asian American women’s performance group that worked to challenge stereotypes, and has created numerous art and poetry exhibitions celebrating and shining a light on what it means to be a queer woman of color.
She published her first book of poetry and prose, The Words of a Woman Who Breathes Fire, in 1983. She won the Firecracker Alternative Book Award with her second book, Breathless: Erotica.
Tsui debuted her acting career in her 30s and won critical acclaim for her role as Chin Moo in Paper Angels. After the death of a friend, she quit drugs and alcohol and became a competitive bodybuilder, winning gold at the 1990 Vancouver Gay Games when she was 38 years old. Through her unapologetic pride, advocacy, and trailblazing over the years, Tsui has long been considered an icon in the LGBTQ community. In 2016, she received the Phoenix Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Asian Pacific Islander Queer Women & Transgender Community.
“i am a warrior, a worker, a writer, my grandmother’s youngest daughter, a feminist who does not believe in silence. i am a woman who loves women, i am a woman who loves myself.” — Kitty Tsui, The Words of a Woman Who Breathes Fire
8. Kalpana Chawla
Kalpana Chawla was a brilliant astronaut and engineer who became the first Indian-born woman to travel to space.
Chawla was born to a Punjabi Hindu family in present-day Haryana, India. She grew up fascinated by airplanes and flying, spending much of her free time going to local flying clubs and watching planes with her father. Despite attempts by professors to dissuade her from pursuing a career path that had few opportunities for women in India, Chawla obtained a degree in aeronautical engineering from Punjab Engineering College before immigrating to the U.S. and eventually earning her doctorate in aerospace engineering.
In 1988, Chawla began working at NASA’s Ames Research Center, and in 1994, was selected as an astronaut candidate. Her first flight was aboard the space shuttle Columbia on flight STS-87 in November 1997, where she was a mission specialist and prime robotic arm operator. Throughout her time as an astronaut, Chawla was passionate about providing science education opportunities for young girls in India and worked with NASA to invite two students each year from her secondary school to take part in their Summer Space Experience Program.
On the morning of February 10, 2003, as Chawla returned to Earth from her second voyage into space, the shuttle’s thermal protection system became damaged and the 7-person crew tragically lost their lives. For her dedication to space exploration and passion for flight, Chawla was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor and is regarded as a national hero in India.
“I have felt that connection and stewardship for Earth for as long as I can remember. And not just for Earth, but the whole universe.” — Kalpana Chawla
As we bid farewell to March, our efforts to celebrate and recognize the contributions and achievements of women do not end here. We thank all women, from the past to the present, who formed the backbone of advocacy and justice work, and who continue to advance our communities toward a more equitable future for all.
Danielle Wong is the Multi-Media Strategic Communications Fellow at Asian Americans Advancing Justice — AAJC.
Vivin Qiang is the Manager of Strategic Communications at Asian Americans Advancing Justice — AAJC.