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Merle Woo was born to a Korean mother and Chinese father, Helene Chang and Richard Woo, in San Francisco on October 24, 1941. She grew up in San Francisco’s Chinatown with her mother, a clerical worker, and her father, a butcher and ginseng salesman. Helene Chang was born in Los Angeles, where her father worked as a ginseng salesman and traveling Methodist minister. The Changs immigrated to Shanghai, China, when Helene was little, but at ten they sent her back to the United States alone to live in an orphanage run by white missionary women. She ran away from the orphanage at age sixteen to start a different kind of life. After having an abusive first husband, she married Richard Woo, Merle Woo’s Chinese father. Richard Woo emigrated from southern China and entered the United States as a paper boy (using false documents.) He worked two full-time jobs most of his life.
School, Activism and Career
Although they were not Catholic, Richard and Helene Woo sent Merle to Catholic schools, which they thought were better than public schools. Merle Woo earned her B.A. in English from San Francisco State University (SFSU) in 1965. She married while in college and later had two children, Emily and Paul. While pursuing an M.A. in English literature at SFSU, Woo witnessed firsthand the 1968–69 Third World Student Strikes at SFSU, which radicalized her politics. She speaks of being a beneficiary of such campus activism, because of the resulting establishment of ethnic studies, the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), and affirmative action, which she believes helped her to get jobs. After finishing her M.A. in 1969, she started to teach in the Educational Opportunity Program at SFSU. During her years in the EOP, Woo attempted to make English learning more relevant to her students of color and began to incorporate Third World literature into her teaching.,
Woo is a writer and university lecturer in Asian American, Women, and Lesbian and Gay Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. An outspoken lesbian, mother, and leader in Radical Women and the Freedom Socialist Party, Woo criticizes the racist, sexist images of Asian American women in the American media, where they are often portrayed as demure, invisible, and subordinate "model minorities." Her uncompromising support for student protests against racist and conservative policies at the University of California at Berkeley caused the administration to fire her twice. Both times, she lodged free-speech lawsuits and won reinstatement.
Woo has created a poetry collection, “Yellow Woman Speaks.” The collection focuses on topics such as racism, sexism, love, and sex, among others. “Yellow Woman Speaks,” was expanded and reissued by Radical Women Publications in 2003.
In 2003, Woo teamed up with Mitsuye Yamada and Nellie Wong to create “Three Asian American Writers Speak Out About Feminism.”
Merle Woo published one of her works in the feminist anthology, This Bridge Called My Back. In her “Letter to Ma,” she tries to show her mother that her liberation can reinforce her pride, culture, and experiences as an Asian American woman rather than take away from them. In “Letter to Ma,” Woo describes her frustration with her mother’s inability to understand and connect with Woo’s life of activism and dealing with her homosexuality. Woo tells of her silent relationship with her mother and addresses social issues such as racism, sexism, oppression, and exploitation as problematic themes in her life. Her letter intends to illuminate aspects of Asian American women’s experiences and empower Asian American cultures.
Merle Woo participated in "Lady is Dying", and shortly after was inspired to start a theater group. She started "Unbound Feet" or "The Unbound Three" with other Asian American poets, writers, and theater workers.