Zia was born in New Jersey to first generation immigrants from Shanghai. She entered Princeton University in the early 1970s and was a member of its first graduating class of women. As a student, Zia was among the founders of the Asian American Students Association. She was also a vocal anti-war activist, voicing her Opposition to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, and a firm believer in feminism.
She entered medical school in 1974, but quit in 1976. She moved to Detroit, Michigan. She went to work as a construction laborer, an autoworker and a community organizer, after which she discovered her life’s work as a journalist and writer.
She is the author of Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People, a finalist for the prestigious Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize. President of the United States Bill Clinton quoted from Asian American Dreams at two separate speeches in the White House Rose Garden.
She is also co-author, with Wen Ho Lee, of My Country Versus Me, which reveals what happened to the Los Alamos scientist who was falsely accused of being a spy for the People's Republic of China in the “worst case since the Rosenbergs.”
Zia is former Executive Editor of Ms. Magazine. Her articles, essays and reviews have appeared in numerous publications, books and anthologies. She was named one of the most influential Asian Americans of the decade by A. Magazine.
Zia has received numerous journalism awards for her ground-breaking stories; her investigation of date rape at the University of Michigan led to campus demonstrations and an overhaul of its policies, while her research on women who join neo-Nazi and white supremacist organizations provoked new thinking on the relationship between race and gender violence in hate crimes.
Zia has been outspoken on issues ranging from civil rights and peace to women's rights and countering hate violence and homophobia. In 1997, she testified before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on the racial impact of the news media. She traveled to Beijing in 1995 to the United Nations Fourth World Congress on Women as part of a journalists of color delegation. She has appeared in numerous news programs and films; her work on the 1980s Asian American landmark civil rights case of anti-Asian violence is documented in the Academy Award nominated film, “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” and she was profiled in Bill Moyers' PBS documentary, “Becoming American: The Chinese Experience.”
Zia received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the Law School of the City University of New York for bringing important matters of law and civil rights into public view.
Zia remained closeted during much of her early career. She came out nationally on a live C-SPAN broadcast in the early 90s. She currently resides in the Bay Area with her wife, Lia Shigemura. The pair were married in San Francisco in 2004, and again in 2008.
On January 15, 2010, Zia testified for the plaintiffs at the trial (Perry v. Schwarzenegger) on the constitutionality of California Proposition 8 -- which banned same-sex marriage in the state after the California Supreme Court approved it. The defense moved to exclude her testimony on grounds that her individual experience was irrelevant, but Judge Vaughn Walker denied the motion. Zia spoke at the trial of discovering she was a lesbian at age six, of being confronted by coworkers about her sexuality in the 1970s, and of feeling great joy upon getting married in 2004. She also evidenced how Proposition 8 had degraded her, and had led to her being the subject of gross insults. Lastly, she testified that she left her job at Ms. Magazine in New York to be with Shigemura in San Francisco.