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With Two Asian American Women Vying for Top Political Office—A Watershed Moment

With Two Asian American Women Vying for Top Political Office, American Politics Is at a Watershed Moment—Let’s Not Lose Momentum

By Madalene Xuan-Trang Mielke

About 10 years ago, I spoke at a panel on political leadership, and afterward, a young woman from Irvine, Calif.—where 35 to 40 percent of the population has been Asian American for the past decade, before jumping to today’s 43 percent—expressed to me that she’d never seen an Asian American woman as an elected leader in her everyday community. It was a disheartening reminder of the struggle to enhance the visibility of Asian American women in politics, even when they are present.


In the decade since, we’ve seen dramatic changes in that visibility, especially at top levels. We are witnessing the continued rise of women from Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (AA & NH/PI) backgrounds to national prominence with Nikki Haley’s run for president and with Kamala Harris’ initial run for president, and eventual vice-presidential nomination in 2020. Their candidacies in 2024 are encouraging[TM6] , and they also put in sharp relief the limited presence of AA & NH/PI women in state legislatures, where, when U.S. territories are included, they hold only some 110 out of over 7,300 legislative seats. With AA & NH/PIs now the fastest growing demographic in the U.S., it is essential to advocate for enhanced representation to reflect the community accurately.


At times, it can seem like this progress has been glacial. Patsy Mink first broke this barrier half a century ago with her groundbreaking election to Congress and 1972 presidential run. This is all the more reason to focus on the strides made by Haley and Harris and the critical momentum to offered here—a path to encourage more women from diverse backgrounds to engage in politics at every level.


At the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies (APAICS), we foster non-partisan participation in public service, empowering women of all ages to dive into the political sphere and address the noticeable representation gap. We believe that more participation in local elections and community service is not just a way to gain political experience, it is also a robust mechanism to address community-specific needs and issues, reflecting the diverse values, cultures and aspirations of our communities.


That journey starts locally. Haley and Harris both exemplify journeys from local to national stages that highlight the immense influence and opportunities local governance and community involvement provide. Still, the mosaic of AA & NH/PI identities demands nuanced understanding and individualized approaches to ensure every community is included.


The largest driver of the increasing demographic growth of Asian Americans is immigration, not birth, which means that Asian American communities’ [VE7] [TM8] sense of civic participation exists on a spectrum heavily swayed by their original national backgrounds. South Asians, for instance — backgrounds Haley and Harris both share—have recently surpassed Chinese Americans as the most populous Asian group, according to new Census Bureau figures, particularly those who identify as “Asian-alone.” They and other communities such as Vietnamese Americans and Hmong have demonstrated that organized efforts can yield representation, emphasizing the need for united, inclusive strategies across all Asian American communities. 


South Asians who predominantly originate from democratic India, for instance, tend to have a deeper understanding and comfort with civic engagement compared to Asian Americans from countries with less democratic frameworks, reflecting a more seamless integration and active interest in our political system. We often encounter pervasive distrust of government within Asian communities from less democratic countries, coupled with inherited historical traumas encountered by the younger generations from their ancestors or communities of origin. Our findings at APAICS also show a declining emphasis on gender in voting preferences in some communities, underscoring the need to accentuate gender diversity in leadership roles and advocate for equal representation. 


These challenges extend to intergenerational conversations about civic duties and historical struggles as well. For example, Black communities have a rich history of elders who fought for civil rights to share and inspire younger generations to carry democratic values forward. These discussions are often absent among AA & NH/PI communities with less integration into the American political system. This underscores the crucial need for introducing young people to active citizenship to overcome these deterrents to political participation. They can imbue democratic values within their communities, fostering a culture of informed civic participation and bridging generational divides. 


Again and again, we find that relatable success stories from one’s community of origin are paramount to inspire public service pursuits and enrich government diversity and inclusivity. They help fill the pipeline to empowering AA & NH/PI women in politics, one illuminated by the milestone achievements of Mink, Harris and Haley and the many others holding office. Their stories serve as a beacon, encouraging more AA & NH/PI women to contribute to a democracy that is truly inclusive and representative.


My goal is to see more women of all ages looking up to visible, recognizable AA & NH/PI leaders in their communities and on the national stage, using them as sources of inspiration to immerse themselves in public service. If we fail to raise the visibility of AA & NH/PI women in politics now across offices, we risk squandering the groundbreaking work of those who came before us and missing a pivotal opportunity to build on this defining moment. That leaves the diverse and vital voices of AA & NH/PI women unheard and unheeded in the critical conversations shaping our nation’s future.

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