During the battle for women’s suffrage in this country in the early 20th century, dramatic parades and marches became an increasingly commonly-used tool to communicate a message about the necessity of enfranchising women and the injustice of continuing not to do so. One important piece of that drama is the story of a teenage Chinese American immigrant who led one of the most important of those parades on horseback as it kicked off from Washington Square for the long march up Fifth Avenue.
It was May 4, 1912, and ten thousand people participated as the suffragists moved up towards Madison Square. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, a young Chinese American student, rode on horseback at the helm of the parade. She was outspoken in her passion for equal rights for women and Chinese Americans, and had recently caught the attention of white American suffragists, who invited her to participate in this monumental event. While Lee’s appearance garnered much attention by the movement and the press, it is just a small snapshot of Lee’s enormous accomplishments as a suffragist, scholar, and leader in the Chinese American community.
Mabel Ping-Hua Lee was born in Canton (now known as Guangzhou), China in 1896 or 1897 (according to different sources). Her father, Lee Towe, was a Baptist minister and merchant who moved to the United States when Lee was a child. Lee spent her early life in China, where she was raised by her grandmother and mother, Lee Lai Beck. In 1905, after receiving a Boxer Indemnity Scholarship, Lee was granted a United States visa and moved with her family to New York City’s Chinatown. From there she attended the Erasmus Hall Academy in Brooklyn.
In 1912, the same year Lee led the suffrage parade, she enrolled at the all-women’s Barnard College. Here she joined the Chinese Students’ Association, a national organization for students that published a journal for its members, and wrote for The Chinese Students’ Monthly, in which she advocated for feminist efforts in the United States and China. In 1914, Lee published an essay titled “The Meaning of Suffrage,” which argued that a successful democracy necessitated women’s suffrage. True feminism, Lee asserted, was “nothing more than the extension of democracy or social justice and equality of opportunities to women.”
At this time, Penn State University professor Cathleen D. Cahill writes, the largely white American suffrage movement hoped to learn from the recent Chinese Revolution, which resulted in the (limited) enfranchisement of women. The suffrage movement, Cahill reminds, was a transnational effort. In the spring of 1912, many prominent white suffragists sought to build relationships with Chinese American communities, which in many cases remained connected to communities in China. In turn, Chinese American suffragists hoped that these dialogues would provide support for their own efforts to secure citizenship, prohibited by the United States’ Chinese Exclusion Act, and the right to vote. Lee was one of several members of her Chinatown community to join a meeting of national and state suffragists — including Harriet Laidlow, Anna Howard Shaw, and Alva Belmont — at the Peking Restaurant on Seventh Avenue and 47th Street that year. Captivated by Lee’s contributions, which illuminated the ways Chinese American women were affected both by sexism and racism, the group welcomed her to lead the suffrage parade in May.
Three years later, in 1915, Mabel Ping-Hua Lee was invited to give a speech at the Women’s Political Union’s Suffrage Shop. Titled “The Submerged Half” and covered by The New York Times, her address encouraged the Chinese American community to uplift the education and civic participation of women. Lee’s activism was, by necessity, engaged in the effort to empower both women and Chinese Americans — and especially Chinese American women — in democracy.
Following her graduation from Barnard, Lee became the first Chinese American woman to receive a PhD in economics, from Columbia University. She published her research in the book The Economic History of China, and when her father passed away in 1924, Lee assumed his role as the director of the First Chinese Baptist Church of New York City. She was also the founder of the Chinese Christian Center, a community center providing a health clinic, kindergarten, vocational training, and English classes.
Though women gained voting access in New York State 1917, and the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, Chinese American immigrant women could not vote until over two decades later. The Chinese Exclusion Act, in effect from 1882 until 1943, prohibited Chinese immigrants from obtaining United States citizenship and therefore denied their voting rights. Furthermore, just four years after the 19th Amendment passed, Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act, which strengthened restrictions on Chinese immigration and expanded exclusions throughout Asia. It is uncertain whether Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, who lived until 1966, ever became a United States citizen and voted here. Still, her amazing legacy lives on in numerous ways. On December 3, 2018, a Chinatown post office at 6 Doyers Street was named after her.
Mabel Ping-Hua Lee’s remarkable efforts to advocate for the suffrage, equality, and elevation of women, especially Chinese American women, continue to resonate and inspire in ongoing intersectional social justice efforts today. She’s also one of the astonishing number of people and places in Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo that played a key role in the women’s suffrage movement and appear in our new 19th Amendment Centennial Storymap.