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Twelve Asian American and Pacific Islander Women to Know

Patsy Mink from leaflet

Patsy T. Mink U.S. Senate for Hawaii for the Nation Leaflet. National Museum of American History.

By Healoha Johnston of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center and Sara Cohen of Because of Her Story


May marks Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Our Smithsonian collections include a variety of objects that represent notable Asian American and Pacific Islander women. Here are nine photos, songs, videos and other objects that highlight 12 women to know.

1. Patsy Mink        

Political leaflet, featuring a large black and white photo of Patsy T. Mink, wearing a lei and smiling. Written in blue and red text at the top: "Patsy T. Mink / U.S. Senate / Democrat." Written at the bottom: "For Hawaii / For The Nation."
Patsy T. Mink U.S. Senate for Hawaii for the Nation Leaflet. National Museum of American History.

In 1964, Patsy Mink became the first woman of color elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Her Congressional career spanned decades (1964–1977; 1990–2002). She was a key author for Title IX, a law that advanced gender equity within federal funding policies for education. This law was later renamed the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act in her honor.

Our National Museum of American History collected this leaflet from her 1977 campaign. In the leaflet she says, "I have been guided by a single principle: That everyone—rich or poor, powerful or weak—should get fair and equal treatment from government."

2. Muna Tseng

Dancer Muna Tseng extends her arms into the air. She looks off to the right of the image.
Muna Tseng. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; acquisition made possible through Federal support from the Asian Pacific American Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center © 1992, Philip Trager

Muna Tseng works as a choreographer, performer, and founder of Muna Tseng Dance Projects Inc. Born in Hong Kong, she started classical Asian dance classes around age seven. Her work as a choreographer incorporates a mix of ballet, American modern dance, and elements of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean dance traditions. In 1977, she and her brother, photographer Tseng Kwong Chi, moved to New York. When Tseng Kwong passed away in 1990 due to AIDS-related causes, Muna became an advocate, archivist, and estate manager of his work. Today, this portrait of Muna Tseng and photos by Tseng Kwong Chi are in our National Portrait Gallery.

3. Hina Wong-Kalu, Isabella Borgeson, Kayla Briët, and Wang-Ping Oshiro

Hina Wong-Kalu, Isabella Borgeson, Kayla Briët, and Wang-Ping Oshiro are educators, artists, and community organizers. They are featured in director Jess X. Snow's documentary short film AFTEREARTH. In AFTEREARTH, these four women fight to preserve the land for future generations. Wong-Kalu, Borgeson, Briët, and Oshiro use art and activism to address environmental issues and produce positive change. Though each comes from a different cultural background, they all apply their own ancestral knowledge in their work. You can watch AFTEREARTH for a limited time in our Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center's digital Care Package.

4. Christine Sun Kim


Christine Sun Kim explores sound in her drawings, performance, and installation work. She uses art to advocate for Deaf culture and make connections between linguistics, music, and American Sign Language (ASL). She explained on The World radio program how signing is empowering, "I truly believe American Sign Language is important because from the beginning, when a child is born, if they learn ASL, they have full access to information." Kim recently participated in our Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden's Artist Diaries program. In this video she talks about what it's like making art during the current global pandemic.

5. Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri stands on a beach and looks, squints as she looks into the camera. Her right hand rests on her head, pulling back her hair. Her left hand holds a stone. She wears a loose-fitting top and bangle bracelets.
"Rock in the Wind" Jhumpa Lahiri. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the artist. © Raymond Elman

Author Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 with her debut short story collection, The Interpreter of Maladies. Born in London to Bengali parents, Lahiri moved to Rhode Island at age three. As a child she was inspired by her grandfather's stories of India, and her father's extensive book collection. Her career as an author is informed by these memories and experiences in storytelling. In this collage from our National Portrait Gallery, artist Raymond Elman portrays Lahiri by the sea in Cape Cod.

6. Toshiko Takaezu

Toshiko Takaezu stands in a studio behind a large cylindrical clay vessel, finishing the very top. The clay artwork comes up to her chin.
Photograph of Toshiko Takaezu, 1974. Photographer unknown. Toshiko Takaezu papers, 1937-2010. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Toshiko Takaezu was a trailblazer in ceramic art-making during the 1970s. She is best known for creating large, closed-vessel sculptures. At the time, fellow artists expressed shock that a woman could make such large pieces, some taller than the artist herself. Takaezu merged aspects of Japanese tea ceremony, calligraphy, and American Abstract Expressionism to create a new style from these diverse art traditions. She had a long career as an artist and teacher at the Cleveland Institute of Art and Princeton University. Our Archives of American Art holds her papers.

7. Chien-Shiung Wu

Chien-shiung Wu, Y.K. Lee, and L.W. Mo. wear lab coats and stand in front of two long, horizontal tubes that strech out of frame.
Photo of Chien-shiung Wu (1912-1997), Y.K. Lee, and L.W. Mo. Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Chien-Shiung Wu was a leader in experimental physics. Wu emigrated from China in 1936 to earn a Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkley. Anti-Asian prejudice in California made it difficult to find West Coast work, but Wu secured positions at several universities on the East Coast. This photo from our Smithsonian Institution Archives shows Chien-shiung Wu working at Columbia University with physicists Y.K. Lee and L.W. Mo. Wu and her team's experiments confirmed the theory of subatomic particle behavior known as "weak interaction."

8. Mona Haydar


Syrian American poet and rapper Mona Haydar is best known for her first music video, "Hijabi" (2017). The song responds to questions and comments frequently received by women who cover their heads. Billboard named the song one of the top 25 feminist anthems of all time. Our Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum features her song as part of their Contemporary Muslim Fashion exhibition.

9. Emily Kauʻiomakaweliokauaionalaniokamanookalanipo Kukahiwa Zuttermeister

Emily Kauʻiomakaweliokauaionalaniokamanookalanipo Kukahiwa Zuttermeister, also known as Aunty Kauʻi, is a revered Kumu Hula (master hula teacher) from Hawaiʻi. She trained in the hula pahu tradition of Samuel Pua Haʻaheo before becoming a teacher in 1935. Zuttermeister helped revitalize ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian language) and culture by teaching hula. She was part of a community of leaders who raised awareness about hula as a storytelling art form created by the Hawaiian people to recall and share their knowledge. On our Smithsonian Folkways website you can listen to her perform mele pahu (chanted prayers) in the oli (chant) style.

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Healoha Johnston is the curator of Asian Pacific American women's cultural history at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. Johnston's research explores connections between historic visual culture and contemporary art to understand the contemporary experience.

Sara 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, the Because of Her Story newsletterand Smithsonian social media.

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