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Portrait of Mabel Ping-Hua Lee (1896–1966). New-York Endowment Tribune, April 13, 1912. Chronicling America, National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress

Dr. Mabel Ping Hua Lee’s Push for Suffrage

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May is Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Month, when the Law Library celebrates the accomplishments that Asian and Pacific Islander Americans have made to American history, society and law. Dr. Mabel Ping Hua Lee, a twentieth-century Chinese American economist, was also a suffragist and a women’s rights advocate who worked within the Chinese American community to get women the right to vote.

Mabel Ping Hua Lee was born in Guangzhou, China in 1896. Well-educated in China and Hong Kong, she won a Boxer Idemnity Scholarship, allowing her to study at Erasmus Hall Academy. She and her family moved to Brooklyn in 1905 so she could start her studies. She was a gifted student and at age 16 she entered Barnard College, while pursuing her interests in women’s suffrage. She helped organize a delegation of Chinese American women to march in the May 4, 1912 suffragist demonstration in New York City, leading them while she rode on horseback.  The New York Tribune wrote an article about her suffrage activism, “Chinese Girl Wants Vote”, demonstrating how extraordinary her efforts were for the time. She wrote an essay in May 1914, “The Meaning of Woman Suffrage,” for The Chinese Students Monthly, where she noted, “[Suffrage for women] 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 (of which woman suffrage is a fourth part) is the application of democracy to women.“ While at Columbia, she was a member of the Women’s Political Equality League. In 1915, at the invitation of the Women’s Political Union, she gave a speech, “China’s Submerged Half,” which was covered by the New York Times. In her speech, she stated, “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 with them. In the fierce struggle for existence among the nations, that nation is badly handicapped which leaves undeveloped one half of its intellectual and moral resources.”

Dr. Mabel P. Lee (ca. 1920-1925) George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.35680

 

Women won the right to vote in New York State in 1917, and in the United States in 1919. However, the Chinese Exclusion Act (ch. 126, 22 Stat. 58), passed in 1882, put strict limits on immigration and citizenship for Chinese people coming to the United States. Mabel Lee was unable to gain citizenship as a result of this law. She could not vote when the right was granted to most women in the U.S., despite all her efforts for the cause. The act was repealed in 1943, but there is no evidence that Dr. Lee ever voted in a U.S. election.

She continued her education at Columbia after graduating from Barnard. She earned her Ph.D. in economics in 1921. Dr. Lee was reportedly the first Chinese woman in the U.S. to earn a doctorate. She published her book, The Economic History of China, after she earned her degree. Her plan was to return to China after completing postdoctoral studies in Europe, and continue her economics and women’s rights work in China. However, her father died in 1924, and she returned to the U.S. to help her mother. She took on his role as director of the mission of the First Chinese Baptist Church of New York City, and she founded the Chinese Christian Center to provide social services to local Chinese people. She spent the rest of her life working for her community, for women’s rights and for equality for all. The United States Postal Service named Manhattan’s Chinatown Post Office after Dr. Mabel Ping Hua Lee on December 3, 2018.

Sources

JK1896 .C25 2020  Cahill, Cathleen D. Recasting the vote : how women of color transformed the Suffrage movement.

HQ799.2.P6 K346 2023  Kahn, Mattie. Young and restless: the untold history of American girls in protest.

HC427 .L4 Lee, Mabel Ping-hua, 1897-  The economic history of China.

LC3051.A25 “The Meaning of Woman Suffrage,” The Chinese Students’ Monthly, vol. 9 (May 12, 1914), p. 526-31.

Tseng, Timothy (1996) “Dr. Mabel Lee: The Interstitial Career of a Protestant Chinese American Woman, 1924-1950.” Paper presented at the Organization of American Historians Annual Meeting, Chicago, Illinois.

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