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Activist, Scholar, Dandy

Celebrating South Asian American Women’s Stories

By Amy Bhatt |
MARCH 8, 2015

Today is International Women's Day and March marks Women’s History Month. During the early waves of migration of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, South Asian women were categorically restricted from immigrating to the United States. Immigration policies such as the Chinese Exclusion and Asiatic Barred Zones Acts intended to keep women out in order to encourage migrants to return back to their home countries. Despite these restrictions, women came as students, workers, wives, mothers, and grandmothers and integrated into every facet of private and public life in the United States. Although they have been foundational to the formation of community groups, religious institutions, political organizations, and new and established industries, women’s stories are less visible in the archive of immigrant histories. Here, we profile two remarkable women who migrated before the landmark Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which allowed women to come in greater numbers through family reunification policies and other programs. Their legacies have set the stage for future generations of South Asian women to continue their contributions to American life.

First, Dr. Anandibai Joshee was a pioneer who graduated from the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in the class of 1886.

Joshee’s accomplishment is remarkable not only because she was one of the first South Asian women to graduate from a university, but because she was among the very few women who were able to earn a medical degree in the United States at all. Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman physician to graduate in 1849, and by the time Joshee came to study in 1883, there were still only a handful of colleges or universities that allowed women to study medicine. Even though she was married at a young age, Joshee made the journey abroad on her own and enrolled in medical school with the blessings of her family. She earned her degree at the young age of nineteen and returned to India to practice medicine. Sadly, she passed away soon after, but her legacy inspired future generations of women to travel abroad in search of education, work, adventure and opportunities.

Read more about Joshee in "5 South Asian Americans You Should Know About" and see more materials about South Asian women at the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania.

Fast-forwarding seventy-five years, Shanta Gangolli first arrived to the United States as a young bride.

She had earned her bachelor’s degree in Bombay in economics and statistics. After getting married, Gangolli left her family, friends and career behind to travel to the United States so that her husband could pursue a fellowship at MIT in Boston. Though Gangolli had planned on furthering her education in India, the move to the U.S. shifted her plans. She eventually enrolled in courses at Boston University and studied education for the hearing impaired. She recalls, “Teaching is rewarding, you know, because in one year if you look back from when you start in September and then in June, you see how much the child has [learned], even though every day you don’t see that much difference. But by the end of the year…” Gangolli went on to work at a variety of institutions and schools with deaf children, while also co-founding an important music society for South Asian music in the Pacific Northwest and raising a family.

Read more about Gangolli in Roots and Reflections: South Asians in the Pacific Northwest, by Amy Bhatt and Nalini Iyer.

Today, South Asian women have become powerful figures in all arenas. As political advisor to Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Huma Abedin has become a household name, while politicians such as Pramila Jayapal and Kshama Sawant have won city and state elections. Celebrity chef Fatima Ali has risen to culinary fame and comedians Aparna Nancherla and Mindy Kaling have broken barriers on prime time television shows. Activists such as Bhairavi Desai (pictured left), founding member of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, Rinku Sen, executive director of Race Forward and publisher of Colorlines and Deepa Iyer, former director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) have become powerful voices for social change, racial and immigrant justice. No longer in the shadow of history, South Asian women continue to make an impact in the United States, just as their foremothers have done for over a century.
• Read about The Barbour Scholarship for women from 'the Orient' to study at the University of Michigan beginning in 1917.
• Read The Parrot's Beak, where writer/activist Kartar Dhillon, born in California in 1915, recounts her childhood as the daughter of early migrants from Punjab.
• See more materials related to South Asian 'Early Women Students' in the United States.
Amy Bhatt is Assistant Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and Affiliate Assistant Professor of Asian Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She is the co-author of Roots and Reflections: South Asians in the Pacific Northwest with Nalini Iyer.