From 1974 to 1984, Democrat Lilly Fong (1925–2002) served on the Nevada Board of Regents, the first Chinese American woman to win an election in Nevada and to hold that position. Fong laid the foundation for Republican Cheryl Lau (b. 1944) to be elected as Nevada’s secretary of state (1991–1994), the first Asian American to hold a major statewide office in Nevada. This study focuses on how and why these women emerged from the shadows into Nevada politics and suggests why they failed in later attempts to win an office. As second- and later-generation Chinese American women, they shared the strong Chinese cultural traditions, beliefs, and prejudices and were products of the changing role of education for women and the emergence of women in Chinese and Chinese American public life. They also were affected by the women’s movement in the United States and the Chinese emphasis on education, which led them both to advanced degrees and teaching. Gender and racial discrimination, anti-Chinese legislation and attitudes, and history and cultural traditions, especially the belief that women should be confined to domestic activities, were among the many barriers they had to overcome. They became active at a time when Chinese American political organizations became more influential and widespread, especially in cities with large Chinatowns. They, like many of their generation, had historical role models and contemporary ones, including Democrats Patsy Mink (1927–2002) of Hawaii and March Fong Eu (1922–2017) of California (to name just two). They shared similar backgrounds, including parents who were active in the community, the financial support of their husbands, a concern for U.S.-China relations, and, from time to time, their appeal to the mainstream community. They both believed in the Confucian adage that “education is the equalizer of mankind.” What they both lacked in their later campaign efforts were mentoring on tactics and the ability to quickly challenge negative media publicized by their opponents. They needed strong pan-Asian support, but, until 2000, Nevada had a small Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) population. They also needed broader support among voters of other races and ethnicities. Both women, who had female challengers at one point or another, lost to Euro-American women, which suggests that gender was not the major factor in those reelection failures. They had responded to the call for AAPI involvement in politics and, by their efforts, laid the foundations for recent successes of other AAPI women in Nevada and the West.
Out of the Shadows and into Politics: The Experiences of Chinese American Women in the American West
Sue Fawn Chung received her bachelor’s degree from UC Los Angeles, her master’s degree from Harvard, and her PhD from UC Berkeley. She taught Chinese and Japanese history, Asian American history, and Chinese art history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, for almost forty years and has held several local and statewide appointed government positions. She worked on the Stanford Chinese Railroad Project for seven years and has written several articles on the subject. Her recent publications include The Chinese in the Woods: Logging and Lumbering in the American West (2015); In Pursuit of Gold: Chinese American Miners and Merchants in the American West (2011) (Caroline Bancroft History Honor Award, 2013), The Chinese in Nevada (2011), and chapters in Chinese Railroad Workers in North America:Recovery and Representation (2017), The Chinese and the Iron Road (2019), and ’Til Death Do Us Part (2019).
- Views Icon Views
- PDF LinkPDF
- Share Icon Share
- Search Site
Sue Fawn Chung; Out of the Shadows and into Politics: The Experiences of Chinese American Women in the American West. California History 24 December 2020; 97 (4): 56–82. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/ch.2020.97.4.56
Download citation file: