During the latter half of the 19th century, there was a major increase in immigration to the United States from China. Much of this was due to severe economic and political turmoil in China. The discovery of gold in California in 1848 made the United States a particularly desirable new home for Chinese people. Chinese immigrant men found work in gold mines and, later, in the railroad industry. Discrimination against Chinese immigrants increased in the 1870s because white laborers began to fear they would lose their jobs to the growing population of Chinese immigrants.
Chinese women, however, faced discrimination that was not directly connected to work. Instead, discrimination against Chinese women specifically centered on their perceived sexuality. Americans often assumed that all Chinese immigrant women were prostitutes. This fallacy became an excuse to keep Chinese women from coming to the United States. Americans feared that female Chinese immigrants would corrupt society, marry white men, and have mixed-race children, resulting in an increased non-white population. Politicians were hesitant to restrict the immigration of Chinese men because businesses profited from their cheap labor, so they focused their attention on keeping out Chinese women. The goal was to limit the size of the Chinese population in America by preventing Chinese men from bringing their families to the United States or starting new ones.
The Page Act of 1875 was the first federal immigration law that prohibited a certain group of people from entering the United States. The law was named after Representative Horace F. Page from California. While the Page Act outlawed all contract labor, it particularly targeted Chinese women. Any woman who wanted to immigrate to the United States from Asia had to prove to immigration officers that she was not a prostitute.
The Page Act significantly reduced the number of Chinese women entering the United States. Between 1880 and 1882, over 50,000 men immigrated from China yet only 550 women arrived in the country. Eventually, the United States banned nearly all Chinese immigrants from entering the country for ten years due to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The Geary Act of 1892 extended this law and added further restrictions on Chinese immigrants. By 1910, Chinese immigrant men outnumbered women 14:1.
Following the Page Act and Chinese Exclusion Act, American immigration laws continued to place more restrictions on women. These laws were based on sexist and stereotypical assumptions about women’s morals. In 1891, Congress passed a law that required all pregnant women who entered the United States to prove they were married. Another law, passed in 1910, allowed immigrant women who performed sex work to be deported.