Why We Need More AAPI Women in Elected Office

Only 47 Asian American and Pacific Islander women are among the 7,383 state legislators across the country, and only 10 are among the 535 members of Congress.

Kamala Harris speaking with attendees at the National Forum on Wages and Working People in Las Vegas, April 2019. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

Progressive Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) women can be a key factor in turning out voters in battleground states like Georgia and Michigan, and building a more inclusive Democratic party—if only we change the narrative.

Like Black women, Asian American and Pacific Islander women, Latinas and Muslim women face a specific kind of misogyny that others them and seeks to make them seem less American than their white counterparts.  The intersection of race, religion and perceived immigrant background results in critiques that are phrased in different ways toward different women, but come down to the same thing—you’re not one of us

We saw this on the national stage recently: When Kamala Harris was nominated as the vice presidential candidate for the Democratic party, the accusations she wasn’t born here came swiftly. 

Although AAPIs are often considered the model minority, we are more accurately described as an invisible and overlooked community. Nowhere is that more apparent than in key election years like this one, when the conversation about the electorate offers detailed analysis of groups of white voters, limited acknowledgement of Black voters and an occasional nod to the Latino community.

This near erasure of the AAPI community hurts us all but especially serves to undermine the leadership of AAPI women and more broadly of women of color.

A new report, “Advancing AAPI Women,” shows that in the nonprofit sector, AAPI women are 81 percent of executive directors or co-executive directors of AAPI organizations, and lead 75 percent of the civic engagement programs within those organizations.

Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii). (CC)

While this reflects their interest in and commitment to public service work, it rarely translates to running for office. Currently, only 47 AAPI women are among the 7,383 state legislators across the country, and only 10 are among the 535 members of Congress.

Poor representation of AAPI women in legislatures is of concern because these numbers are not at parity with the AAPI population, but also because AAPI women candidates can be stalwart champions for progressive causes, as we see with Senator Mazie Hirono and Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal at the national level.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal. (CC)

Senator Hirono is the first Asian American woman elected to the Senate, and Congresswoman Jayapal the first South Asian American woman in the House. Both are outspoken advocates for reproductive justice, immigration reform, and access to health care. 

AAPI Women Must Be Represented at State Level, Too

Voices like theirs matter not just at the national level, but also at the state level.

Georgia State Representative Bee Nguyen, the only Asian American woman in the Georgia House of Representatives, helped challenge the racist exact name match requirement for voters in the state.

Michigan State Senator Stephanie Chang is an advocate for criminal justice reform. Sen. Chang’s district is 47 percent Black and 44 percent white, and Rep. Nguyen’s is 62 percent Black and 33 percent white—demonstrating that their leadership transcends simple identity politics. 

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“It’s Not Your Turn”

Yet, through my work with first- and second-generation American candidates and elected officials, I repeatedly hear about what elite party leaders say to people like us: It’s not your turn; people aren’t going to vote for someone like you; your community doesn’t vote.

First- and second-generation AAPI women, who are immigrants and children of immigrants, are most affected by this discouragement and are underrepresented by 3:1 compared to their male counterparts.

This messaging boxes AAPI women into a certain narrative and factors into AAPI women’s reluctance to run for office and requires that they be asked repeatedly to run. This is changing, but far too slowly.

A Record Number of AAPI Women Democrats Are Running for Congress

In August, the Center for American Women and Politics reported that a record number of AAPI women Democrats are running for Congress in 2020, up from 20 in 2016 and 36 in 2018.

Two are poised to make history: Gina Ortiz Jones in Texas and Hiral Tiperneni in Arizona, as the first AAPI women elected to Congress from their states.

Other progressive champions to watch in 2020 include Michelle Au, a Chinese American physician, in Georgia and Radhika Kunnel, an Indian-born scientist and would be the first South Asian elected to the Nevada legislature. 

In the months leading up to the 2020 general election, we have an opportunity to reframe who we think of as an American leader for today and beyond. AAPI women, and their Latina, Black and indigenous counterparts, are America’s long unacknowledged leaders.

If elected, they will bring to Congress and our state legislatures their lived experience and community knowledge, and their commitment to an America with a place for us all.

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Sayu Bhojwani is a democracy activist and author of People Like Us: The New Wave of Candidates Knocking at Democracy’s Door.