“Model” Mothers?: Disrupting Cold War Ideologies of Racial Democracy

Endorsed by OAH Committee on the Status of ALANA Historians and ALANA Histories, OAH-Japanese Association for American Studies Japan Historians' Collaborative Committee, OHA, and WASM

Saturday, April 1, 2023, 10:30 AM - 12:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Asian American; Race; Women's History


The Cold War was a particular type of crisis, one that did not involve active warfare on U.S. soil but rather preparation for and prevention of a devastating nuclear war. As part of this domestic ideological war, Cold War narratives touted U.S. democracy as facilitating racial integration. However, these narratives did not fully capture the complex racial landscape of the U.S. and the experiences of racial minorities within it. Cold War ideologies that employed ideas of motherhood and domesticity as critical to containment also existed alongside societal narratives that held up some Asian Americans as model minorities. These three papers interrogate that intersection of Cold War domesticity, motherhood and race, and women’s resistance to these gendered and racialized prescriptions. More specifically, these papers complicate the idea of women and mothers as model minorities. They illustrate how narratives about “good mothers” serve to erase and silence the continued inequalities they faced, and obscure the alternative, boundary crossing connections they created as they navigated the spaces between exclusion and belonging. The papers in this interdisciplinary panel combine oral and community histories, and archival research on mothers of color to elucidate the ways in which these women crossed multiple boundaries as they both navigated traditional social institutions and family structures and forged new connections with broader communities. Focusing on how the experiences of Asian American and other women of color crossed social, cultural, racial, gender and sexual boundaries helps complicate the narratives of Americanization and assimilation that have been central to U.S. discourses of diversity, while also illustrating the agency these mothers exercised both within and outside of the domestic sphere within which they were often contained and constrained. By combining oral and community history methods with archival research, and focusing outside of traditional population centers, these papers also push spatial and geographic boundaries, enabling us to rethink racial and gender dynamics.

Papers Presented

Telling Toy Len Goon's Story: Challenging Cold War Domesticity and the Model Minority Myth

Toy Len Goon, a Chinese immigrant, widow of a WWI veteran, and mother of eight, who lived in Portland, ME, was thrust into the national spotlight when she won the title of U.S. Mother of the Year in 1952. This award, given by the American Mother’s Committee of the Golden Rule Foundation, was employed by politicians and the news media as part of containment efforts in the cultural Cold War against communist China. This paper draws on recent and archived interviews with Toy Len Goon and her descendants, archival research including news coverage of her award, and documents retained by her family, to bring to light the ways in which Cold War ideologies used to frame her life story at the time of her award and when it was later retold by family members, the media, and other interested in telling her story of success did not do it full justice. Her creation of a mixed- use space within the laundry that both reinforced and reshaped family gender roles around both laundry and domestic work and reflected social relationships that extended beyond the laundry itself, her refusal of an Americanization teacher’s attempts to teach her English, and her continued remittances to relatives in China illustrate the multiple boundaries that she crossed. While the image of a model mother created by the media focused on her achievements in the domestic realm, her roles as a businesswoman and mother, and her relationship to the Chinese American community complicate and contradict the Cold War narratives of assimilation, Americanization, and domesticity that her story was meant to represent.

Presented By
Andrea Louie, Michigan State University

Claiming Chinese Baltimore: Motherhood, Belonging, and Community History

“Claiming Chinese Baltimore” examines a Chinese American community through women’s eyes from the era of exclusion through the early decades of the Cold War. Chinese immigrants in Baltimore established a community enabled by the racial dynamics of a “border South” city focused on policing African American lives and bodies. Their lives within the city show the development of a Chinese American community without a defined urban space of ethnic enclave. Drawing on the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service’s (INS) case files and a 1970s Chinese Baltimorean community history, anecdotes from women’s lives suggests the ways they were able to lay (limited) claim to local belonging as Baltimoreans. In particular, despite racialized and gendered exclusionary laws, Chinese immigrant mothers’ experiences in Baltimore reveal their negotiations of the boundary between legal and affective citizenship during the exclusion years. This paper focuses on the tension between those experiences and Cold War-era recounting of community historian Lillian Lee Kim. In her self-published account Early Baltimore Chinese Families, Kim focused on relating stories of a community established within a racialized and unequal system, constructing a historical portrait of Chinese Baltimore focused on family and church. Her community history privileged Cold War-era celebrations of Chinese America as normative and nuclear – simultaneously erasing U.S. structural inequality and providing weight to the model minority myth. This paper explores how her focus on the role of mothers in the community, nuclear family, and family histories as aligned with early Cold War efforts to rebut Orientalist narratives.

Presented By
Adrienne Winans, Independent Historian

“Hijo Mio”: Oral History, Race, and Reimagining Motherhood

In the early Cold War period, Asian American and Latinx entertainers gained visibility as they brought racialized and gendered fantasies to life on the nightclub stage. This was a period when American policymakers, journalists, and cultural producers sought to demonstrate the promises of American racial democracy to audiences at home and abroad by promoting “desirable” images of race. Asian American and Latinx women gained a stage for their art, but they also faced risk and danger as they transgressed gender and sexual norms within the disreputable space of the nightclub. This paper explores this tension through the layers of feeling, gaps and silences, and performances in oral history interviews with Asian American and Latinx women. Many former entertainers framed their careers through narratives of good motherhood. And yet, underlying these narratives was often a deep sense of loss and longing in reaction to the condemnation they had faced as “bad” mothers and scandalous women. I explore the gaps, silences, and fragments that point to alternative narratives of marriages of convenience, queer kinship networks, and cross-racial relationships that suggest how entertainers pushed against gender and sexual norms and experimented with different family arrangements. I also explore how they turned to song and dance as powerful reparative performances that reimagined the possibilities for love and motherhood.

Presented By
Rosanne Sia, University of British Columbia

Session Participants

Chair and Presenter: Andrea Louie, Michigan State University
Andrea Louie is a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Michigan State University, where she founded the Asian Pacific American Studies Program. She is author of Chineseness Across Borders: Renegotiating Chinese Identities in China and the United States (Duke 2004), and How Chinese Are You?: Adopted Chinese Youth and their Families Negotiate Identity and Culture (NYU 2015). She has done research on Chinese international students at MSU, and received a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship for 2020-21 for researching and writing a book on her maternal grandmother, Toy Len Goon, who was selected as U.S. Mother of the Year in 1952. Drawing on archival materials, interviews, and analyses of media coverage and historical framings of the event, this book project provides an ethnographic account of the changing ideas of race, gender and belonging that emerged with the rise of the model minority myth during the Cold War from the perspective of a family whose story was used on a national and international level to buttress this myth. Departing from traditional biographies, this project traces the repercussions of the event through an anthropological lens that brings into dialogue the multiple narratives surrounding her story and its insertion into the public imagination.

Presenter: Rosanne Sia, University of British Columbia
Rosanne Sia is an assistant professor at the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality, and Social Justice at the University of British Columbia. She works across Cold War cultural history, performance studies, critical race studies, and queer studies. Her book manuscript, Fantasy in Motion: Performing Racial Imaginaries in the early Cold War, focuses on women of Asian and Latinx descent who danced and sang on nightclub circuits in the early Cold War. Drawing on forty-five oral histories, she argues that performers crossed boundaries of genre, nation, language, race, and sexuality that exceeded Cold War narratives of racial integration. Community engaged scholarship through oral history methodology and practice is at the heart of her research projects.

Commentator: Naoko Wake, Michigan State University
Naoko Wake is a historian of gender, sexuality, and illness in the twentieth century United States and the Pacific Rim. She is intrigued by the ever-present tension between objectivity and subjectivity in medical and cultural practices, and by the historically changing ways in which sufferers, caregivers, and physicians have grappled with such tension. She has written on the history of psychiatric and psychoanalytic approaches to homosexuality in her first book Private Practices: Harry Stack Sullivan, the Science of Homosexuality, and American Liberalism (Rutgers, 2011). Her second monograph concerns Japanese American and Korean American survivors of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, titled American Survivors: Trans-Pacific Memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Cambridge, 2021). In this work, she has explored gender, racial, cross-national identities that emerged in Asia and Asian America in post-colonial contexts, and a range of grass-roots activism that took shape in response to the nuclear destruction: patient rights, civil rights, anti-war and -nuclear activism. She continues to be fascinated by personal experiences and memories of trauma, pain, and illness, and how they coexist and collide with social and cultural institutions. Her current project is about the history of disability among Asian Pacific Islander Desi Americans. She works with graduate students in the US modern history, history of gender and sexuality, Asian American history, history of medicine, and history of nuclear weaponry.

Presenter: Adrienne Winans, Independent Historian
Adrienne A. Winans is an assistant professor in the Department of History and Political Science at Utah Valley University. She is currently working on her book project examining Chinese immigrant and Chinese American women’s negotiations with the gatekeeping state.