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Journal of Asian American Studies 3.2 (2000) 231-236

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Review Essay

Asian American Women's Organizations: Notes on Issue-Oriented Organizing

Playwright Ntozake Shange was once asked, "Do you think of yourself as Black or a woman first?" She replied, "I don't know honey, they both happened at the same time."

"The whole point of launching a feminist critique of society is to draw attention to the way gender hierarchies inform every aspect of social life."

Karin Aguilar-San Juan1

The first quote that opens this essay refers to a common question that is to this day still asked of many women of color. Shange's snappy response directly addresses the absurdity of the question as well as the matter-of-fact understanding that race and gender are always intertwined. Thanks to generations of Asian American feminist scholars, writers, and activists, the intersection of race and gender is widely acknowledged and recognized as a valid subject of scholarly inquiry as well as a legitimate reason for the necessity of Asian American women's organizations. Yet, merely taking into account the importance of race and gender does not answer why the need for Asian American women's organizations still exists. The need for these organizations exists because many Asian American and women's organizations still do not address, include, or integrate Asian American women's issues into their mission statements, agendas, or endeavors. [End Page 231]

As Sonia Shah, the editor of Dragon Ladies: Asian American Feminists Breathe Fire, writes, "While many Asian American women are quick to note that women's issues are the same as men's issues--i.e. social justice, equity, human rights--history shows that Asian American men have not necessarily felt the same way." 2 This brief essay attempts to answer why we continue to need Asian American women's organizations 3 and offers a few examples of how two issue-based Asian American women's organizations, Asians and Pacific Islanders for Reproductive Health (APIRH) and the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum (NAPAWF), articulate race and gender in their philosophy and programs. By providing a brief history of these organizations and examining their programs, one can see how these organizations are challenging racism and patriarchy.

I chose to discuss APIRH 4 and NAPAWF 5 because they reflect a feminist and progressive political perspective in their programs/projects and more importantly, they represent organizations that conduct their organizing based on issues rather than identity.6 Issue-based identity organizations provide opportunities for people of diverse identities and backgrounds to coalesce. Sonia Shah suggests that rather than assuming a unity amongst Asian American women because we share the same race and gender, we should instead challenge the unequal power structure in this society and work against the oppression based on racism, patriarchy, and imperialism that differently affects Asian American women. 7 Shah states that an Asian American feminist critique challenges existing political inequality and social injustices based on a structural level rather than on an individual level.

APIRH is an organization working from a feminist critique that seeks to "build the capacity of Asian and Pacific Islander women and girls to participate in advocacy on reproductive rights and women's empowerment." 8 The founders of APIRH created this organization in 1989 to ensure access to safe abortions for Asian and Pacific Islander women after the Webster v. Reproductive Health Services decision. Originally called Asian and Pacific Islanders for Choice, this group changed its name and shifted their focus from "choice" and abortion rights to a broader approach of reproductive health advocacy in an effort to recognize the complexity of race, gender, and class issues and to address the need for a more holistic approach to women's health.

APIRH's three program areas-- outreach and education, research, and organizing and advocacy--reflect a broader approach to women's health and empowerment. While research and advocacy formed the early part of the group's work, APIRH has also moved into the direction of organizing and educating [End Page 232...


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