Margaret Chung was born in California in 1889 to Chinese immigrant parents. Margaret grew up in a devout Christian family and had hopes of going to China as a medical missionary. When her parents became ill, she helped raise her 10 younger siblings.
Margaret was a gifted student and won a scholarship to attend college by selling newspaper subscriptions. She supplemented her scholarship with part-time work, sales, and through contest winnings. When she entered medical school she faced racism and gender discrimination. To counter this, she dressed like a man and took the name Mike. She was now Dr. Chung, the first American-born Chinese woman to graduate from medical school.
Dr. Chung’s dream of becoming a medical missionary was denied by the missionary board based on her race. She continued her medical practice by working as a surgeon. She became so well known that she set up a private practice and began treating those in the developing entertainment industry in Los Angeles.
Later Dr. Chung moved to San Francisco intending to treat the local Chinese-American community. This proved to be a challenge, however, because the Chinese community there was suspicious of western medicine. She was more successful in providing care to white patients who came looking for Chinese treatments, although she never practiced them. Since she remained unmarried and frequented establishments associated with the emerging queer community in San Francisco, rumors began to spread at the time that she was lesbian.
When the Japanese invaded China, there was a growing sympathy toward Chinese citizens in America. Dr. Chung volunteered to be a surgeon in the Sino-Japanese War. She was turned down, but she did play an invaluable role in recruiting pilots to support the Chinese war effort.
Dr. Chung took on a role almost like a surrogate mother to a growing number of aviators, submariners, and others—so much so that they affectionately referred to her as “Mom.” She would feed them, send them letters, and generally support them as she could. The number of her “children” would eventually reach 1500. She became active in the war effort and advocated for women to serve. She was largely responsible for the creation of the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). However, she was rejected for service in the WAVES because of her race and suspicions about her sexual orientation.
Mom Chung’s boys went on to have illustrious careers as
- Governors (Albert Chandler, Ronald Reagan)
- Admirals (Bull Halsey, Chester Nimitz, Walter Schlech, William Parsons)
- President (Ronald Reagan)
- Generals (Melvin Maas)
- Orchestra Conductor (Andre Kostelanetz)
- Senators (Raymond Willis, Albert Chandler)
Just imagine how a woman like Dr. Chung would be accepted today. Would we reject her because of her race and sexual orientation? Would we construct conspiracy theories to draw suspicion of her motives? Would we shame those who became her adopted sons? And what does this say about our society?
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“Gee, you are as understanding as a mother, and we are going to adopt you.” – (one of Mom Chung’s pilots)
This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to join us in imagining positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy.