[Woman suffrage] is nothing more than a wider application of our ideas of justice and equality. We all believe in the idea of democracy; woman suffrage or the feminist movement is the application of democracy to women.
March is Women’s History Month, and as decided by the National Women’s History Alliance, its theme for 2020 was Valiant Women of the Vote. In popular knowledge of US history, the women’s suffrage movement of the early 1900s “culminated” in the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. However, women of color were excluded from the picture due to racism. The law only guaranteed this right to middle and upper-class white women, mirroring the way that the most visible people of the movement- white feminists- prioritized white supremacy over racial equity, intentionally pushing out and silencing Black, brown, and other suffragists of color (read more about the movement’s racism here).
Because of the lack of representation of our faces in popular American feminist history, we wanted to highlight one notable suffragist, an ancestor of Asian American activism:
Dr. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee (1896-1966)
Born in Guangzhou, China in 1896, Mabel and her family immigrated to NYC Chinatown in 1905. At the age of 16, she began organizing, leading by horseback a parade of 10,000 people to advocate for women’s right to vote in May 1912. She attended the all-women Barnard College and wrote feminist essays such as “The Meaning of Women’s Suffrage” (which is quoted above) for The Chinese Students Monthly. At the Suffrage Workshop run by the Women’s Political Union, she gave a speech in 1915 titled, “China’s Submerged Half” that advocated for girls’ education and women’s civic participation within the Chinese community. She had also joined Barnard’s Chinese Student Association, notably running for their presidency against Tse-ven Soong (who later became China’s finance minister) but losing due to ballot manipulation- which further solidified her suffrage views. In May 1917, she helped lead another pro-suffrage parade in NYC as a member of the Women’s Political Equality League, this time specifically organizing Chinese and Chinese American women to march.
Women in New York won the right to vote in 1917, but Lee wasn’t able to vote because she was not allowed to apply for naturalization- the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was still legal.
Continuing her education in political science and economic history and graduating in 1922, Lee became the first woman to win the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship, the first Chinese woman to earn a PhD in economics from Columbia University, and the first Chinese student to be awarded as a University Scholar in Economics. Having made many trips back and receiving multiple job offers, she fully intended on moving back to China due to the racial discrimination in the US and to fulfill her sense of duty to her motherland- but as the Japanese were beginning their invasions, she instead stayed in NYC and devoted the rest of her life to the Chinese American community.
An aide to Lee’s decision was the sudden death of her father in 1924, and she took over his role as the lead pastor of the Baptist mission in Chinatown at the age of 28. Two years later, she founded the Chinese Christian Center in memoriam of her father. It offered vocational and English classes, a kindergarten, and a health clinic to Chinese New Yorkers- most importantly, it offered support and sanctuary for her community, away from the discrimination they faced in American society. Additionally, she helped her mission separate from the greater white-led Baptist mission, making the First Chinese Baptist Church the first self-supporting Chinese church in the US. Under her leadership, the church provided numerous classes and social services for working-class Chinese Americans, and it remains a community fixture in NYC Chinatown today.
A community builder and organizer, religious leader, teacher, and feminist writer and speaker, she dedicated her whole life to fighting for not just for her and other women’s right to vote, but for the Chinese American community’s right to exist and thrive in face of the racism they faced in America; her tireless activism is especially admirable because Chinese Americans were not granted citizenship- thus, voting rights- until the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943. Asian Americans as a whole were not granted the right to vote until 1952.
As we honor the groundwork that feminists of color, like Mabel Lee, have laid for us to receive the rights we have today, it is more important than ever for women, especially Asian Americans, to be civically engaged. Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial group in the US, and representation is crucial to ensure that our communities’ needs are met. We will continue to organize in the spirit of Mabel Lee, to break the stereotypes of Asians (especially women) being apolitical and quiet, with political education, and to fight for our rights like our ancestors had done: doing the outreach to our own communities that politicians oftentimes fail to do; reducing language barriers and fighting against voter suppression; amplifying the voices of those most impacted; and standing in solidarity with communities who are in these trenches alongside us.
Asian American Legacy: Dr. Mabel Lee (2013) by historian Dr. Timothy Tseng, PhD
#20: Suffragist Landmark of Asian American History in NYC: Finding the Asian American Past in the Five Boroughs (2014), by historian Dr. Charlotte Brooks, PhD
Dr. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee profile, on National Park Service site