By Sara Cohen of Because of Her Story, Meredith Holmgren and Sojin Kim of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, and Emily Margolis of the National Air and Space Museum and the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian
In 1973, performers Nobuko Miyamoto, Chris Iijima, and Charlie Chin released the album A Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggle by Asians in America. Regarded by many as the first album of Asian American music, their album has roots in American folk music revival, blues, soul, and jazz.
This Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, learn about nine women who shaped American culture. Their achievements are represented across the Smithsonian's collections.
Performer and Activist Nobuko Miyamoto
Nobuko Miyamoto is a groundbreaking Japanese American songwriter, dancer, and activist. She uses art to support and build community. In Broadway musicals and on the protest line, she has challenged racial and gender stereotypes.
Born in Los Angeles, California, in 1939, Miyamoto was a small child when the U.S. entered World War II. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, all Japanese Americans living on the West Coast of the United States were removed from their communities. Accused of no crimes, they were confined in camps run by the U.S. government. Most of these people, including Miyamoto and her parents, were American citizens. This experience of being scapegoated based on race and ethnicity would motivate Miyamoto to uplift the stories of communities who have been historically silenced or persecuted.
Miyamoto pursued her love of music and dance from an early age. She performed with Cuban prima ballerina Alicia Alonso's company. She was also cast in the original Broadway production of Flower Drum Song and the original film adaptations of The King and I and West Side Story.
In the 1960s, she became involved in activism and discovered new purpose for her training in the arts. She describes it as "finding my own voice as a singer." She explains, "Song was a powerful way to our tell our story and connect with other movements, especially those of other people of color who were struggling for change in this country." Miyamoto marched with artists and activists protesting the American war in Vietnam. She also shared songs in support of those fighting for Puerto Rican independence and Black liberation.
In 1973, she recorded A Grain of Sand with Chris Iijima and Charlie Chin. One notable song from the album is "We Are the Children." In it, the artists affirm their lineage as Americans, recognizing the labor that Asian Americans have contributed to the U.S. as railroad workers, gardeners, launderers, and agricultural workers.
Through her organization Great Leap, Nobuko Miyamoto cultivates intergenerational and cross-cultural creative collaborations. In recent years, they have focused on environmental issues. In 2021, Miyamoto released a double album of music, 120,000 Stories, and a published memoir, Not Yo Butterfly: My Long Song of Relocation, Race, Love, and Revolution with University of California Press.
More Asian American and Pacific Islander Women to Know
Explore the stories of these eight notable women through our collections, programs, and resources.
1. Inventor Ayah Bdeir
As a child in Beirut, Lebanon, Ayah Bdeir often took apart (and reassembled) her family's electronics. These experiments helped her learn how everyday objects worked. After earning an engineering degree, Bdeir moved to the United States for graduate study at the MIT Media Lab. In 2011, she created littleBits, electronic building blocks that snap together with magnets, to empower more people with engineering skills. A toy and a tool, littleBits can be combined to test out ideas for inventions and create electronic and software devices. Playing with littleBits, children mix art and engineering to engage their curiosity. During this panel for the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center at the National Museum of American History, Bdeir said she is especially moved when littleBits lets immigrants, girls, and students who learn differently create. Learn more about Bdeir in Diverse Voices: Women Inventors from the Lemelson Center.
2. Senator and Helicopter Pilot Ladda Tammy Duckworth
Ladda Tammy Duckworth is a U.S. Senator and retired military helicopter pilot. Born in Bangkok, Thailand, in 1968, she lived in Singapore and Indonesia before moving with her family to Hawaiʻi at age 16. Duckworth wanted to become an ambassador. After earning a bachelor's degree in political science, she pursued a master's degree in international affairs. While in graduate school, she took classes in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps at the encouragement of her friends and classmates, who were active and retired military personnel. Duckworth "fell in love with the Army," and followed in the footsteps of her father, an Army veteran. During 23 years of service, she flew Black Hawk helicopters in missions with the Illinois Army National Guard, including Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2004, enemy fire hit her helicopter and she sustained major injuries, including the loss of both legs and partial use of her right arm. She retired with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 2014. In the same year, she served as an Illinois Representative in the U.S. House. In 2016, Illinois voters elected her to the U.S. Senate. Among other causes, she advocates for disabled American veterans.
3. Designer and Community Organizer Miu Eng
Miu Eng uses her design skills to celebrate her Asian American community and address anti-Asian hate. Eng was born in 1955 in Hong Kong. When she was 11, her family immigrated to Washington, D.C., to join her grandfather, a restaurant chef in D.C.'s Chinatown. While in high school, Eng joined Eastern Wind, a D.C. group of Asian American students who worked to address issues affecting their community. Eng provided illustrations for the group's newsletter. When the group secured funding for a 32-foot mural in Chinatown celebrating Chinese Americans, Eng served as key designer. Eng continued to support her community beyond high school. After college, she designed posters for the city's observance of Asian Pacific American Heritage Week. Asian American Heritage Week extended to a full month in the early 1990s after Congress passed new legislation. You can see Eng's designs and read or listen to her oral history with the Smithsonian's Anacostia Community Museum.
4. Biochemist and Bacteriologist Ruby Hirose
Ruby Hirose was born in 1904, in Kent, Washington. Her parents had recently immigrated from Japan. After finishing her PhD in biochemistry, she researched serums and antitoxins at the William S. Merrell Laboratories. Hirose identified a method to improve pollen extracts used to treat hay fever—an allergy from which she also suffered
Hirose, and her family, faced racial discrimination. Shortly after Hirose was recognized for her accomplishments by the American Chemical Society in 1940, World War II began. During the war, three of her family members were imprisoned in internment camps. As Hirose worked in Cincinnati, she was able to avoid imprisonment.
Over the course of her career, she researched blood clotting and antitoxins in addition to allergies. She made major contributions to the development of vaccines against infantile paralysis. Learn more about Hirose from the Smithsonian Libraires and Archives and a learning activity guide released with USA Today, "We Built This: How Women Innovators Shaped the World."
5. Hawaiian Culture Bearers Edith Kanakaʻole, Pualani Kanakaʻole Kanahele, and Nalani Kanakaʻole
Edith Kanakaʻole was a highly respected keeper and teacher of Hawaiian traditional knowledge. She was a chanter, composer, educator, and kumu hula (hula master). Her work expanded the appreciation of Hawaiian cultural expressions and lifeways. In 1953, she established the Hālau ʻO Kekuhi hula school on The Big Island in Hawaiʻi. She played an active role in the Hawaiian Cultural Renaissance of the 1960s and 70s, advocating for Native Hawaiian language in public schools. Her work includes two recorded albums, Haakui Pele I Hawaiʻi ("Pele Prevails in Hawaiʻi") and Hiipoi I Ka Aiina Aloha ("Cherish the Beloved Land"). Both albums won the Nā Hōkū Hanohano Award (known as the "Hawaiian Gammy") for best traditional album.
Edith's daughters, Pualani Kanakaʻole Kanaheleand Nalani Kanakaʻole, carry on and expand upon their mother's legacy. They are both kumu hula, as well as prolific composers and performers of music and chant. In 1990, they established the Edith Kanakaʻole Foundation in Hilo. The foundation aims "to maintain and perpetuate the teachings, beliefs, practices, philosophies and traditions" of their parents. Both Pualani and Nalani participated in the 1989 Smithsonian Folklife Festival's Hawaiian program. They also appear on the Smithsonian Folkways release Musics of Hawaiʻi. In 1993, they received National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowships, the nation's highest honor in folk and traditional arts. View a recorded hula performance by the Hāla 'O Kekuhi Hula Ensemble, led by Pualani and Nalani in 2004 at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.
6. Astronaut Kalpana Chawla
Kalpana Chawla, was an engineer, pilot, and astronaut. Over the course of her career, she spent more than 30 days in space during two Space Shuttle missions. Born in Karnal, India, Chawla was fascinated by flight since her childhood. She studied aerospace engineering at Panjab Engineering College and the University of Colorado-Boulder, where she earned her PhD in 1988. She was a NASA researcher before becoming an astronaut in 1995. Chawla flew on STS-87 in 1997 and STS-107 in 2003 as a mission specialist. Among her many skills, Chawla operated the Space Shuttle's robotic arm to deploy satellites. She was the first Southeast Asian American woman to go to space. Chawla was tragically killed when Space Shuttle Columbia broke apart while re-entering Earth's atmosphere on February 1, 2003.
Sara E. Cohen is the digital audiences and content coordinator for Because of Her Story, the Smithsonian American Women's History Initiative. She shares lesser-known histories of women through this website, Because of Her Story newsletter, and Smithsonian social media.
Meredith Holmgren is the curator of American women's music at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Her work tells stories about women and music using sound recordings, multimedia, and material culture from across the Smithsonian.
Sojin Kim is a curator at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She works on projects focusing on migration, music, and public history.
Emily A. Margolis is curator of American women's history at the National Air and Space Museum and Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. She works to center women in the history of aviation, spaceflight, astronomy, and planetary science through research, exhibits, and programs.