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AANHPI Month: Celebrating Labor Activist Ah Quon McElrath

In honor of Asian American Native Hawaiian & Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Month, AAUW Honolulu recognizes Hawaii’s own Ah Quon McElrath. McElrath's legacy stresses the vital lesson of uniting across race, class, and gender divides, viewing diversity as a source of strength rather than division. Despite operating as a woman of color within a white male-dominated power structure, she successfully confronted formidable social and political barriers throughout her life. 

McElrath, born December 15, 1915, was the child of Chinese immigrant parents. Her father was a contract laborer and her mother was a “picture bride,” who ditched her intended husband for love. McElrath’s father died when she was just five years old, leaving her mother to raise seven children in extreme poverty.

Ah Quon McElrath was a bright, studious child, who spent summers working in pineapple canneries, to help support the family. Despite the family’s deep financial distress, McElrath was able to graduate from the University of Hawaii and eventually studied at the University of Michigan School of Social Work. While at UH, Ah Quon was influenced by Jack Hall, head of the ILWU Local 142 and a Communist Party USA leader. 

After graduation, McElrath secured work at Hawaii’s Department of Public Welfare, where she continued the labor organizing efforts she began in college, winning raises for professional and clerical workers. McElrath continued to pour her prodigious energy into helping Hawaii’s burgeoning labor movement. Some pivotal moments of labor organization came when she helped the workers and their families during the 1938 Inlandboatmen’s Union strike, assisted the victims of the Hilo 1946 tsunami, and coordinated the sugar and pineapple workers to organize during the 1946 sugar strike, which involved 79,000 people. The ILWU finally started paying Ah Quon in 1954 for her groundbreaking work and influential contributions.

McElrath never stopped advocating for the rights of everyday people, especially for the poor and women, by pushing for equal pay and treatment. While social and labor obstacles, and the need for collective action persist after her passing on December 11, 2008, McElrath's lasting impact on Hawaii's landscape has undoubtedly been transformative, particularly for workers and their families. 

Join AAUW Honolulu in celebrating Ah Quon McErath for her trailblazing efforts and inspiring leadership during AANHPI month! If you're aware of other outstanding AANHPI women who champion gender equity, diversity, inclusion, or educational opportunities for women, please share them with us!

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