Washington’s Undiscovered Feminists

by Jasmine M. Pulido

I’m not sure if I’m a feminist.

I like to think I am. But what I am finding is that there are too many words in the social justice lexicon where the definition is different depending on who you are talking to. “Feminism” is a word that continues to change as our culture becomes more aware of its own social constructs. Its meaning bends as more diverse voices are allowed to weigh in on the subject.

I held this small doubt quietly in my mind, hoping to learn something new as I listened this past Saturday to Mayumi Tsutakawa speak at a presentation called “Washington’s Undiscovered Feminists.” It was an event hosted virtually by the Seattle Public Library and sponsored by Humanities Washington. For this event, Tsutakawa personally selected five women in arts and journalism from the 1920s and ‘30s she felt had gone “unsung.” She highlighted in great detail their impactful societal contributions in commemoration of the 100-year anniversary of women’s suffrage. 

There was certainly more to learn about myself in the identities of these Pacific Northwest women. Tsutakawa herself is a writer, activist, speaker, and artist with a long list of personal actions she’s taken in the name of racial and social justice, including but not limited to: participating in the 1972 Anti-Kingdome protests and the March for Low-Income Housing in the International District; founding member of “Seattle Third World Women”; UW Asian Student Coalition President; Seattle Times writer covering the early feminist movement in Washington State; primary reporter for the Washington Women’s Conference in Ellensburg and the National Women’s Conference in Houston in 1977; and co-editing two anthologies of Women of Color writers (including The Forbidden Stitch, the first national Asian American Women’s Anthology). Through Tsutakawa’s accomplishments, I got to see a modern-day, living example of how far and wide activism can go in just one person’s lifetime. Her list of accomplishments just keeps on running. Tsutakawa plans to research what her own mother was doing during the same timeline of the five women she covered in her presentation.

The most interesting fact I learned was that in 1883, Washington was the fifth state in the country to give women the right to vote. Washington had only been incorporated into the United States for 20 years with a population of only 1,000 people at the time. Additionally, the four states to approve women’s suffrage were not the states you would expect. They weren’t urban metropolises. They were all western states — Colorado, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming respectively. Tsutakawa didn’t explain why this might be, but instead pointed out her own curiosity in discovering this for herself.

Tsutakawa chose the five women in her presentation with clear purpose. They were all of different backgrounds. Imogen Cunningham was a white photographer, Priscilla Chong Jue was a Chinese American fiber artist and gallery shop owner, Vi Hilbert was a Native American tribal elder of the Upper Skagit and a Lushootseed language preservationist, Anna Louise Strong was a white activist and radical journalist, and Ruby Bishop was a legendary African American jazz singer and musician. For me, it was important for me to see that Women of Color were able to occupy spaces despite multiple marginalizations even back then. Breaking barriers was happening then just as it continues to happen now.

What I found both curious and inspiring about Tsutakawa’s detailed rundown of her “women warriors” was the diverse range of talents and roles each of these women held at any one period of time outside the traditional roles of mother, spouse, daughter, and friend. While Ruby Bishop considered her nighttime music to be her primary career, she also learned at various times in her life the skills to be a Boeing B17 mechanic and draftsman, a beautician, and a court reporter. At 80 years old, Priscilla Chong Jue helped design and execute floats and costumes for the University District parade while also enjoying ice skating and Hawaiʻian dancing. Besides translating her oral understanding of language to reading and writing, Vi Hilbert was also an electric welder, a hairdresser, and a secretary at Children’s Orthopedic hospital. Anna Louise Strong was also a rock climber, a Seattle School Board member (who was later recalled as the only woman on the Board), and authored 30 books. These women were multipotentialites with a passionate thirst for lifelong learning and growth. As a rock climber, dog groomer/trainer, small business entrepreneur, writer, activist, and community organizer myself, I certainly related strongly to these women’s stories and sentiments.

There was no indication that Tsutakawa’s women asked for or even wanted recognition for their work. While Tsutakawa described them as “pioneers, pathfinders, and breakers of stereotypes,” what I heard in their stories was that these were women who were feminists simply by choosing to exist in the way they wanted. They didn’t limit themselves based on the rules the patriarchy had set for them. Imogen Cunningham, for example, divorced her husband after he asked her to wait for him instead of moving to New York to accept her job at Vanity Fair. After publishing three books, Vi Hilbert decided to open her own publishing house to continue making volumes of native language books. Despite being recalled from her position on the Seattle School Board as its only woman member, Anna Louise Strong didn’t let others’ views of her deter her from speaking out in forceful essays and impassioned articles. 

Their names aren’t as famous as their male counterparts. Their prestige goes mostly unwritten in our local history. But they made inroads for the women to come after them by their sheer determination to go after what they wanted. They were feminists not because they shouted into the megaphone on the frontlines of protest — although that too is a potent version of feminism — but because they sought joy, progress, and joy in their progress. They embraced certain inalienable rights — “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” — despite it not being spelled out for them in any official document. They didn’t wait for permission. Nor forgiveness. They just did.

That’s pretty badass.

Am I a feminist? According to Tsutakawa’s conclusion, one interacts with feminism differently based on our own lived experiences. It is a range of political, social, and personal movements intertwined within itself. If I think about it within this context my self-perception shifts. If there is room for me to show up as I am, in whatever complexity and nuance that I embody, with a drive to pursue what brings me joy despite societal limitations … then yes, I am a feminist. Through and through. What about you?

Jasmine Pulido is a Filipinx American writer in Seattle, WA. You can find her blog at “Shameless Jas,” where she discusses all the topics people are too ashamed to talk about, alongside unapologetically airing anything else on her mind. She enjoys forest bathing, nerdy topics, and racial-social justice. Jasmine holds a Bachelor of Science degree in biology with an emphasis on ecology, behavior, and evolution and a minor in psychology from the University of California San Diego.

Featured image: Photo by Shalom de León on Unsplash