Elevate Difference

Chinese American Women: A History of Resilience and Resistance

The National Women's History Museum will make you say, "Wow!" or "Zounds!" or "Holy s**t, I had no idea." Whether you're an über-educated feminist or a newbie dabbler, this site will inspire your "Women rock!" soul... or rock your "Women inspire!" soul. Either way, you'll love it.

Amongst many astounding cyber exhibits lies Chinese American Women: A History of Resilience and Resistance. Fresh off the heels of reading Lisa See's Snowflower and the Secret Fan (which was set in nineteenth century China), I had to dive into this exhibit to see if escape from China was truly a way out of hierarchical obedience, or yet another road leading to torment for Chinese women. Try to guess which is true: once these immigrant women arrived in America (at a 19:1 male to female ratio), they were treated like queens and enjoyed beautiful lives—just like the immigrants who arrive in America today—or they were treated like criminals, sold into prostitution, and held in detention centers for up to two years.

Because China had a long history in mining, the gold rush in California was an inevitable draw to those who were able to escape the Guangdong Province famine and China's long string of Opium Wars. Many women suffered from disease, depression, isolation, physical disability (those "lily feet"), and severe displacement anxiety. Yet as wives, they had little choice about their journey.

The Chinese American Women exhibit is heavy on text, but includes inimitable images of early Chinese American settlers and trailblazers. It also covers the early Chinese feminist movement, beginning with the abolition of foot binding. It's important to remember that rebellious souls are not the afterthoughts of a few profound social movements. Said movements are, in fact, the result of rebellious souls, whether or not the names attached become psychological backdrops for the masses.

Take Alice Sue Fun, who traveled the world with actress Lola Fisher at a time when most Chinese American women dared not walk outside alone. America itself, though strangely persistent in its racism, wasn't entirely bad. The suffrage movement had a profound effect on the way China saw itself and its treatment of women.

The National Women's History Museum looks unflinchingly at segregation, and provides generous examples of civil disobedience, violent resistance, and as the title suggests, women's resilience. Of course, it does not ignore the degenerative effects of a patriarchal world culture. Confucius, for example, was a dick. Furthermore, his brain was no match for the twentieth century Chinese American women phone operators who knew, by ear, the names and numbers of 2,500 telephone subscribers. Just one of many juicy tidbits that await you at the online exhibit.

Beyond the amazing exhibit featured here, the National Women's History Museum has lots of other goodies to explore. Though it is currently an online-only museum, it is fighting for a physical space—double entendres abound. Sign the bill to make the National Women's History Museum a permanent fixture in the United States by going to their website. There, you'll find information, activism, cyber lesson plans for teachers, and even celebrity sightings.

Only one complaint: the Chinese American Women exhibit is quite a tome and there are no page numbers for reference. Don't let the length deter you, though. Almost every page offers motivating examples of wild women. The site is not ADHD-proofed for navigation, but be patient—the payoff is huge.

Oh, and that deep, welling feeling inside that makes you feel positively giddy as you stroll through the virtual exhibit? That's inspiration. If Yoke Leen can declare herself an independent woman, you can too.

Written by: Michelle C. Schaefer, February 17th 2009

"Confucius was a dick." I love it!