A Chinese-American Pioneer for Suffrage

Mabel Ping-Hua Lee: A Chinese-American Pioneer for Suffrage

By Fanny Wong, New York.

Mabel Ping-Hua Lee
Photo: Mabel Ping-Hua Lee.

from the archives of the public library in Arlington, Virginia

On July 25th 2018, a post office in New York City’s Chinatown was named Mabel Lee Memorial Post Office. It is an honor that Mabel did not anticipate, but it was richly deserved.

Mabel Lee is not well known today, but in 1912, a New York Times article recognized her as a suffragist. It reported “Ten thousand strong, the army of those who believe in the cause of woman’s suffrage marched up Fifth Avenue at sundown yesterday in a parade the like of which New York never knew before.”  On May 4th 1912, what a sight it was to see a sixteen-year-old Chinese girl on a white horse, wearing a sash with “Votes for Women” printed on it. Starting from Greenwich Village, she led a parade of 10,000 suffragists!

Mabel’s father, a missionary pastor from China, had moved to the United States when she was four years old. Living with her mother and grandmother in China, Mabel studied in a missionary school and became proficient in English. She was an excellent student and in 1905, at the age of nine, a scholarship landed her in the United States to attend school. She and her mother were reunited with her father, who was the pastor of the Baptist Chinese Mission in New York’s Chinatown.  At that time, Chinatown was a new community. According to the census of 1910, there were only 5,266 people of Chinese descent in the city of New York.

Mabel’s father was active in the community and greatly influenced his daughter.  Even at a young age, Mable’s Baptist faith infused in her a desire to improve the lives of women and girls. In her teenage years, she became involved in the suffragist movement, knowing full well she could not vote. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited Chinese immigrants from becoming citizens. Nevertheless, she threw herself energetically into the suffragists’ cause.

Excelling in English, Latin, and mathematics, Mabel was a brilliant student in high school at the Erasmus Hall in Brooklyn. She attended Barnard College, founded for women only because the nearby Columbia University did not admit women at the time. She wrote articles about feminism and suffrage in The Chinese Students’ Monthly magazine, understanding that the poor treatment of women was holding China back and represented a kind of backwardness. 

Mabel’s essay “The Meaning of Women Suffrage” promoted the importance of voting rights and equal opportunities to women. Her speech “The Submerged Half” was an urgent plea to the Chinese Community to promote girls’ education and women’s rights. From the call to the general public and specifically to the Chinese immigrant community, she was indefatigable and resourceful.

As an Asian woman, Mabel broke another barrier. In 1921, she was the first to earn a Ph.D. in Economics from the previously all male Columbia University.  

Mabel was ready to return to China to start a girls’ school. That had always been her dream. In March 1923, she sailed to France to study European economics to prepare herself better. In one of her letters, Mabel said, “I do thank God for the United States which gave me wonderful development and such a keen insight into the realms of knowledge. I feel that my life must be devoted to helping my people in China.”

But that was not to be. Her father died the following November and she returned to New York to take up his work at the Baptist mission. The community and the mission depended on her. She became the director of the First Chinese Baptist Church, devoting the rest of her life to the small church and community service center. The center improved the life of the community by offering a health clinic, a kindergarten, vocational training and English classes. Undoubtedly, she influenced the growing population of children and families in New York’s Chinatown.  

In 1920 the 19th amendment was passed, giving women the right to vote, but the privilege did not extend to Asian or Black women. It wasn’t until 1943 that Chinese persons were permitted to become naturalized citizens with voting rights. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 finally gave voting rights to Black women, 95 years after Black men were able to vote.

What made Mabel spend time, energy, and actions for women’s rights to vote when she herself couldn’t vote? Her religious faith and her nationalistic vision for China suffused her convictions and actions. In her speech “The Submerged Half” she noted “The welfare of China and possibly its existence as an independent nation depended on rendering tardy justice to its womankind.” Her next statement applied to the United States as well. “For no nation can ever make real and lasting progress in civilization unless its women are following close to its men if not actually abreast of them.”

Mabel died in 1966 in obscurity. It is not known whether she ever became a US citizen or if she voted in the US. In the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, she and other less known pioneering suffragists are getting the recognition and celebration they deserve.