Laying Some History On You: Women of Good Character

Asian immigration to North America in the 1800s was heavily slanted male as men left their communities to seek their fortune and send money home; this is one reason many male immigrants took up gendered work like cooking and laundry in the mining camps and later in Chinatowns in regions like San Francisco and Vancouver. As immigrants settled in, however, they started looking for female company, and there was a bigger push to bring more women into North America, through a variety of means including matchmaking with families back home.

In California as in other regions, the result of immigrant communities starting to settle down and build families, instead of being purely a labour force, was backlash. Asian immigrants already faced restrictions when it came to where they could live and the kind of work they could do, and now they were told that they couldn’t establish a foothold in the United States.

In 1870, California’s legislature passed An act to prevent the kidnapping and importation of Mongolian, Chinese and Japanese females, for criminal or demoralising purposes. At first glance, this makes it sound like the legislature was deeply concerned about human trafficking and wanted to make sure women weren’t brought forcibly into the state or forced into marriages they didn’t actually want. This, of course, was not what the legislature was about at all: the law was more specifically geared at limiting the immigration of Asian women, under a veneer of moral concern.

The very text of the introduction is scaremongering:

Whereas, the business of importing into this state Chinese Women for criminal and demoralizing purposes has been carried on extensively during the past year, to the scandal and injury of the people of the State, and in defiance of public decency; and whereas, many of the class referred to are kidnapped in China, and deported at a tender age, without their consent and against their will; therefore, in exercise of the police power appertaining to every State of the Union, for the purpose of remedying the evils above referred to and preventing further wrongs of the same character; The People of the State of California, represented in Senate and Assembly, do enact as follows…

It makes it sound like there was a trafficking epidemic forcing Asian women into sex slavery into the United States. And that the primary cause for concern here was not the rights of the women, but the ‘injury’ to the ‘people of the State;’ in other words, the whites allowed to have full citizenship in California. This was typical of other morality-based legislation of the era, which were heavily focused on how offensive behaviour deemed immoral was to the observer, regardless of the impact on the people engaging in it.

Were women trafficked to California and forced into marriages? Undoubtedly they were, and this was awful. (And is awful, as it’s an abuse that continues.) However, this wasn’t what the state was worried about. It was worried about the establishment of Asian families and the creation of a more settled, and organised Asian community in California. It was also worried about sex workers; because some women undoubtedly migrated to North America to work in the sex industry, including both voluntary and involuntary immigrants.

It shall not be lawful…to bring…any Mongolian, Chinese or Japanese females, without first presenting to the Commissioner of Immigration evidence satisfactory to him that such female desires voluntarily to come into this State, and is a person of correct habits and good character…

The state wanted the opportunity to veto all female immigrants to California; not the men, just the women. This law preceded San Francisco’s 1900 ordinance forcing all new Chinese immigrants into quarantine for bubonic plague, hitting men and women equally when they entered the state. Instead, the act focused on women, and the ability of whites to judge the moral character of new immigrants and determine whether they were truly fit for residency in California. If this attitude sounds familiar, it should; new immigrants to the United States now are also expected to prove good character, and while we don’t officially scrutinise women more safely than men, it’s safe to assume this does happen, particularly with non-white women and women of colour entering the United States.

In fact, until very recently, the United States was one of the few nations to maintain restrictions on HIV-positive immigration, a pretty stark example of a morals-based immigration law. Fear about HIV/AIDS has, from the very start, surrounded sexuality and shaming of patients on the grounds that they must have gotten sick due to being immoral, and barring immigration was a pretty effective way to police morality. Just as women immigrants to California were expected to prove they were of ‘correct habits’ in the 1800s, immigrants to the US in the late 1900s and early 2000s were required to provide information about their disease status.

When people in a position of power and dominance are the ones deciding what good moral character looks like, they get to exclude anyone they dislike on flimsy grounds they can invent on the spur of the moment; in the case of California, the Commissioner of Immigration held considerable power over new entrants to the state and clearly wasn’t afraid to wield it. Yet another hurdle for Asian women to jump when they came into the United States, with no guarantee that they wouldn’t fail and be deported to their home nations because they were unable to satisfactorily prove their capacity to be good citizens—as defined by a white man with the power of life and death in his hands.