What image comes to mind when you think of the women’s suffrage movement in America? A woman in a long suffragette white dress? Is she Chinese? She was. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee was a scholar, an activist for women, a champion for Chinese immigrants, and a leader in New York City’s Chinatown.
Mabel Lee was born on October 7, 1897 in Guangzhou (Canton City), Her father, Dr. Lee Tone, was a Baptist pastor and missionary. He moved to the United States when she was four years old to lead Chinatown’s Morningside Mission.
Lee stayed in China with her mother and grandmother. She studied Chinese with private tutors and learned English at a missionary school. She was a bright student. When she was nine years old, she won an academic scholarship called the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship. It was a scholarship program for Chinese students to be educated in the United States, funded by the Boxer Indemnity. Lee and her mother got a US visa and joined Lee’s father.
In 1905, Lee and her family moved to a tenement house at 53 Bayard Street in Chinatown. Lee attended Erasmus Hall Academy in Brooklyn.
A Worldwide Movement
The women’s suffrage movement was worldwide. American leaders of the suffrage movement watched the Chinese Revolution of 1911 and how it led to women’s enfranchisement in China. The leaders in New York City invited Lee and her mother and a couple of other Chinese women to meet with them to explain what was happening in China. Lee educated the NYC Suffrage leaders about China and New York’s Chinese community.
Women in the Guangdong province of China won the vote in 1912.
Lee was sixteen years old when, on May 4, 1912, she rode a white horse and led a parade of about 10,000 suffrage supporters up New York City’s Fifth Avenue. According the New-York Tribune, Anna Howard Shaw, president of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association, or NASA, followed her. Either Lee or Shaw carried a banner that read “NASA Catching Up with China.”
In 1912, Lee started at Barnard College. Barnard was an all-women’s school, founded because Columbia University refused to admit women to undergrad classes. Lee Majored in history and philosophy. She joined the debate club and the Chinese student’s association and wrote feminist essays for the Chinese Students’ Monthly.
That publication featured her essay, “The Meaning of Woman Suffrage” in which she said that suffrage for women was necessary to a successful democracy.
In 1915, the Women’s Political Union invited Lee to give a speech at a suffrage workshop. Her speech, “China’s Submerged Half,” argued, “The welfare of China and possibly its very existence as an independent nation, depend on rendering tardy justice to its womankind, for no nation can ever make real and lasting progress in civilization, unless its woman are following close to its men, if not actually abreast with them.”
Besides her activism for women’s rights, Lee spoke out about the limitations and discrimination Chinese students faced. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act prevented Chinese immigrants from attaining citizenship and voting.
Continuing her Education
Lee graduated from Barnard College. She earned her master’s degree in educational administration at Columbia Teacher’s College.
In 1917, Columbia University’s graduate program accepted Lee. Columbia had admitted a few women to graduate programs since the 1880s. She was the vice president of the Columbia Chinese Club and associate editor of the Chinese Student’s Monthly.
Also in 1917, the state of New York gave women the right to vote. Of course, Chinese immigrants and many other women of color could not vote.
Lee became the first Chinese woman to graduate with a PhD in economics in 1921. She published her doctoral dissertation that year.
Her book, The Economic History of China, with Special Reference to Agriculture is still available for sale online.
The 19th Amendment
Passage of the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote across the country. However, the Chinese Exclusion Act was still in effect.
Unfortunately, highly educated women had difficulty finding jobs. Especially highly educated non-white women.
Lee wanted to go back to China ever since high school. She hoped to start a girls’ school there.
In 1923, she took a trip to China. Where ever she went and whatever she did, she planned to come back to the US. Because she was not an American citizen, because she was Chinese, she had to request permission to return to the US. Her Ellis Island immigration documents show that she had to have American citizens write letters to swear she was who she said she was. She also had to prove she had been a student. Cheekily, she sent the immigration office her 621 page dissertation.
Her father died in 1924. Lee took over his role as director of the First Chinese Baptist Church of New York City’s Chinatown. She was not a minister. She managed the church with input from the board of deacons (all males) and under the direction of the American Baptist Home Mission Society.
Honor and Advocacy
As director and in memory of her father, Lee raised funds to purchase the 5-story building at 21 Pell Street in Chinatown. In 1926, she bought the building.
It became a community center for Chinatown. They offered vocational and English classes, a health clinic, and a kindergarten where Lee taught.
She couldn’t secure the title for that building until 1954. She titled the building to the First Chinese Baptist Church, which became independent of the American Baptist Home Mission.
The church became the first self-supporting Chinese church in America, and still operates at the same address.
Lee never married. She devoted herself to the Chinese community and maintained her economic independence her entire life.
In 1943, when China became a member of the Allied Nations during World War II, the US repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882). The quotas remained. The quotas allowed only 105 Chinese immigrants to become naturalized per year. Foreign born Chinese also had the right.
There’s no known documentation that Lee ever became a United States citizen or ever voted.
Mabel Ping-Hua Lee died in 1966 at 70.
In 2018, Representative Nydia Velazquez introduced a bill to the US Congress to honor Mabel Lee. That year, the post office at 6 Doyers Street in Chinatown was officially renamed the Mabel Lee Memorial Post Office.
The First Baptist Chinese Church has always remembered and celebrated Lee. They maintain what little documentation remains of all the contributions Mabel Lee made to their community. In 1921, they celebrated the centennial of her PhD graduation.
A Woman to Remember
It’s important for us women to remember Mabel Lee. She fought for our right to vote, even though she knew she couldn’t. Of course, she continued advocating for the Chinese. I don’t know how much of an influence she had on Congress. But she made a big impact on her community, on women’s right to vote, and on securing equal rights for immigrants.
Did you know about Mabel Lee before you read this?
Did you know the US didn’t allow Chinese immigrants to be citizens before 1943?
- Dr. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, National Park Service
- Women’s History
- Mabel Ping-Hua Lee ’1916: A Pioneer of the Suffrage Movement
- Unsung History
- Boxer Indemnity Scholarship, Wikipedia
- Chinese Exclusion Act, National Archives
- Top image by Bain News Service, publisher, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
- Second image by New York Tribune, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
- Final Image by Catemcc, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons