Asian Women: Immigration and Citizenship in Oregon

By Nagae, Peggy | Oregon Historical Quarterly, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Asian Women: Immigration and Citizenship in Oregon

Nagae, Peggy, Oregon Historical Quarterly

THE HISTORY OF ASIAN WOMEN'S CITIZENSHIP in Oregon intersects with race, gender, class, national origin, immigration statutes, and legal cases. (1) A complex legal and social backdrop dictated Asian women's ability to immigrate to Oregon, marry, raise families, and become citizens. Federal laws and legal decisions, marriage rights and customs, prostitution, labor, and international relations all have played roles in the relationship between first-generation Asian American women and their citizenship. Second-generation, American-born Asian women faced barriers to the privileges of citizenship as well as legal battles and discrimination. Not just internal policies but also global politics and international relations influenced Asian women's opportunities to immigrate and gain U.S. citizenship.

Much of the scholarship about Asian women immigrants details the history in California rather than in Oregon. (2) I write this article to give voice to the experiences and challenges that first-generation Asian immigrant women and second-generation American-born Asian women faced in Oregon and to their strength and courage in claiming rights for themselves and their families in a country that often thought them foreign and inassimilable. Looking at citizenship through the eyes of Asian women is critical to understanding the full history of Asian Americans in the United States and the history of the nation as a whole. Asian women served "as historical agents actively engaged in determining their lives and those of their families, communities, and larger entities, albeit within multiple and complex constraints." (3) Often written about from the perspectives of race and national origin--rather than from the intersection of race, gender, class, and national origin--Asian women's lives remain at the margins of history. Scholars have much to do in understanding the history of Asian women in Oregon, work that can be guided by the history reviewed here.



The history of first-generation Asian women's immigration to the United States begins with Asian men, sought for their cheap labor or seeking their own fortune. As early as the 1850s, Chinese laborers, mostly from the Guangdong province, settled in the southern and eastern parts of the Oregon territory to mine gold. Chinese men also built the railroads in Oregon. They held manufacturing jobs around Portland, cleared forests, cultivated farmland in Oregon's rural areas, and composed the largest percentage of cannery workers in Astoria. By 1890, the Chinese population in Oregon had grown to 9,540, the second largest community of Chinese in the United States. Males constituted 95 percent of that total. (4)

The first generation of Japanese immigrants, called Issei, arrived in the United States during the mid 1880s, following the 1882 passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act and the resulting labor void. The mostly male immigrants hailed from Yamaguchi, Hiroshima, Okayama, and Wakayama prefectures; many were single and many thought of themselves as sojourners, here to make their fortune and return home. They had left their wives and families behind in search of riches, anticipating a glamorous life in America. (5)

South Asian men began arriving on the West Coast in 1907. Men between the ages of sixteen and thirty-five, with little education and few skills, were brought largely for their labor, so few women immigrated with them; between one-third and one-half worked to support their families in India. (6)

Many factors inhibited women's immigration, including traditional Chinese values, which gave them little standing because of their gender. Some feared their "husbands might have concubines or other wives in the United States," and they would have no legal recourse, since Chinese women could neither divorce nor remarry and were subject to their husband's discipline. …

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