How did the staff of GIDRA, a newspaper started in 1969 by Asian American students at University of California, Los Angeles, successfully and unsuccessfully advocated for Asian American women?

Written by Haruka Sano

Around 1960s and 1970s, people from various non-white racial groups were becoming more aware about their experiences of struggles as minority in the U.S. Among them were Asian Americans. To begin with, the name, “Asian American,” was created by them to describe themselves, in contrast to the widespread, mainstream, offensive names that white people used to call them, such as “Oriental.” The name, “Asian American,” was a conscious choice, similar to the way in which African Americans rejected the then-mainstream name, “Negro.” Such “newfound consciousness and activism led to a political awakening” that changed “how Asians in the United States were viewed…and, more importantly, how [Asians in the United States] viewed [themselves].” 1

Besides naming themselves, Asian Americans strived for self-determination in areas such as healthcare and education. This goal for self-determination resonated with people of other minority groups in the U.S., who were also being treated poorly, as well as with people abroad, whose lives were being negatively impacted by the U.S. intervention in their countries. These people together formed Third World Liberation Front, a struggle to free the communities that are colonized and oppressed by the U.S. This framework of Third World Liberation unified the minority groups.

Journalism was important for these movements because it helped easily spread people’s thoughts and ideas through printed words. Gidra was the first radical Asian American newspaper. It was founded by five Asian American students from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), and published monthly between 1969 and 1974. It had about 900 to 1300 subscribers, mostly college students, concentrated on the West Coast, especially in California and the city of Los Angeles.

Gidra provided non-mainstream news from a young activist perspective, as a credible national newspaper that wasn’t connected to any one organization. It provided a platform where Asian Americans could “define…communities and explore new identities.”2 So it “inspired other Asian American newspapers and magazines.”3

Gidra was inspirational also because its staff valued self-education and self-criticism, which are seen not only in their articles, but also in courses that they taught. They had a mutually-beneficial relationship with the Asian American Studies Center at UCLA.; while they wrote about the Center in the newspaper, the Center offered them office space and equipment, as well as compensation for using their articles in class. Gidra staff also started their own Asian American Experimental College, free summer courses addressing Asian American social conflict, leadership and group dynamics, the movement, etc.

However, some felt uncomfortable to confront problems “openly and directly” due to hierarchy within the Gidra staff.4 One of these difficult issues was gender; how did they successfully or unsuccessfully address issues specific to Asian American women? In fact, the writers of Gidra published several issues of the newspaper magazine and organized a course at UCLA to address those issues. This was a part of the mere beginning of the struggle to solve the dilemma of Asian American women to choose between liberation for Asian Americans and liberation for women.

Asian American women found it difficult to build bonds with other women, especially white feminists. In terms of advocacy, they often related more with people of their own racial and ethnic background or people of color, rather than groups oriented toward women’s issues. “Asian American women experience oppression not only as women in a society dominated by men but also as minorities facing a variety of forms of racism that are not well understood by white feminists.”5

In this context, white feminists were mostly middle- and upper-class white women, who were the core of the Feminist Movement or the Women’s Liberation Movement. These women fought for their reproductive rights, equal pay and maternity leaves at work, voting rights, and elimination of domestic and sexual violence. Sometimes they excluded women of color, especially black women, in order to be respected and recognized in a society that valued white people. Most of them were white, and did not care about issues that non-white women faced: sterilization abuse, racial stereotypes including hypersexualization, prostitution on U.S. military bases abroad, and wages for housework.

On the other hand, Asian American women faced sexism among other Asian Americans. Asian American families and communities force upon them gender stereotypes and subordinate positions in society. The Asian American Movement reflected this Asian American patriarchy, but challenging it was seen as disloyal; affiliation with the Feminist Movement was even seen as “a threat to solidarity within their own community.”6

In January 1971, Gidra, for the first time, focused on Asian American women. In another issue in April, 1972, two staff members wrote an article, “Thousand Burdens.” In this article, the writers clearly state that “[in] addition to the racial and economic discriminations we as women of color in America face, we shoulder the additional burdens of sexism.”7 For example, they list the gender stereotypes specific to Asian women, such as “ideal sexual partner, the good wife, the devoted servant, and hard worker” that exist within American literature, media, and comic strips.

This article also addresses Asian American women’s conflicts with white feminists. The authors identify that “[there] is a unique quality of Third World women’s movements that has not been significantly covered by current white women’s studies and movements” that “seem to center around a literate, college-educated, middle or upper-class individual.”8 They acknowledge the importance of issues raised by white women, while clarifying that they do not match the urgent priorities of non-white, working-class women, welfare mothers, and well-educated but non-English-speaking women.

This article also mentions that Gidra staff organized a course at UCLA, “Asian Women in America,” to better understand issues that Asian American women face. Their goal was to teach a way of thinking that leads to political awareness, commitment, and action, through research, text, films, and discussions that center Asian women’s experiences. Seventy or more students and auditor participated, and almost all were Asians and the majority were women. Although the organizers recognized the need to study “the effects of these policies on Asian-Americans” and “the history of Asians in America” as well as “the importance of women in American history and society,” it was not easy for them to spread the notion of being an Asian American and a woman.9

While American women may have been more concerned about their race than their gender, they were still aware that they were impacted by racism, imperialism, and sexism at the same time. They, including Gidra staff, were often pressured to pick a side. This was just the beginning of their long journey, with successes and failures, to address the combined experiences of being an Asian American and a woman.

Notes

1 Ishizuka, Karen L., and Jeff Chang. Serve the People: Making Asian America in the Long Sixties. London: Verso, 2016. pp. 3.

2 Lopez, Lori Kido. “The Yellow Press: Asian American Radicalism and Conflict in Gidra.” Journal of Communication Inquiry 35.3 (2011): 235-251. pp. 237.

3 Wei, William. Race versus Gender: The Asian American Women’s Movement. The Asian American Movement. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993. pp. 112.

4 Wei. pp. 104.

5 Chow, Esther N. “The Development of Feminist Consciousness Among Asian American Women.” Gender & Society 1.3 (1987): 284-299. pp. 290.

6 Chow. pp. 288.

7 Chan, Karen I., and May Ying Chen. “A Thousand Burdens.” Gidra: Monthly of the Asian American Experience, (1972): 14.

8 Chan and Chen.

9 Chan and Chen.

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