There are many important takeaways from Village Preservation’s 19th Amendment Centennial StoryMap; there are a remarkable number of people and places in Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo who played key roles in the women’s suffrage movement. That these neighborhoods were long centers of political ferment and progressive social change, and people here played a prominent part in removing barriers to women voting in New York State (which didn’t grant women the right to vote until 1917) and the country.
But further insights can be added by a podcast we’ve recently encountered called Amended, which speaks to topics covered in our StoryMap and brings experts and historians into conversation on these topics. Amended travels from the 1800s through to the present day to show us a quest for women’s full equality that has always been as diverse, complex, and unfinished as the nation itself. The podcast is a project of Humanities New York, which strengthens civil society and the bonds of community by using the humanities to foster engaged inquiry and dialogue around social and cultural concerns.
There are two very timely issues raised in the podcast’s more recent episodes, which we recommend and which build on happenings in our neighborhoods and our immediate surroundings, and build upon the content of our StoryMap.
Episode 5: “The Submerged Half” and Mabel Ping-Hua Lee
According to Amended’s website:
Most Americans learn one, specific version of the history of woman suffrage: that a few bold, white women led a movement for equal voting rights and achieved victory 100 years ago, when the United States ratified the 19th Amendment. But we know that history is never as simple as the stories we tell about it.
One important piece of the 19th Amendment suffrage 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.
Though women in New York were granted voting rights in 1917, and the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, Chinese immigrant women could not vote until 1943. The Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited Chinese immigrants from obtaining United States citizenship and therefore voting rights. Mabel nonetheless spoke out for American women’s political equality. She envisioned a world where all women had the right to vote—and she wanted white suffragists to pay attention to the discrimination and racism faced by Chinese American women.
In this episode, producer Reva Goldberg travels to Chinatown to meet with Reverend Bayer Lee, who honors Mabel’s legacy as the pastor of the church community that Mabel and her parents dedicated themselves to building. Host Laura Free also speaks with Dr. Cathleen Cahill, author of “Recasting the Vote: How Women of Color Transformed the Suffrage Movement,” to learn about Mabel’s political goals for women and for China. In the end, it’s clear that Mabel Lee forged a bold life according to her values, though it remains undetermined whether Lee ever became a U.S. citizen and voted here.
Episode 4: “Embers and Activism” and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
On March 25, 1911, at approximately 4:40pm, a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory at the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place, just east of Washington Square Park. One hundred and forty-six workers, mostly recent Jewish and Italian immigrants, many under the age of 20, died in the fire.
While the building—currently owned by New York University and known as the Brown Building—was able to withstand the fire, almost all manners of egress from the building were faulty. Fire trucks arrived, but their ladders only reached the 6th floor, while the fire burned on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors. Workers who tried to exit through the fire escape fell to their deaths when it collapsed. On the 9th floor, a critical exit in the stairway was locked. The company’s owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, who survived the fire by fleeing to the building’s roof when the fire began, were indicted on charges of first- and second-degree manslaughter for locking the door. They were found not guilty.
In the wake of the fire, a group of women labor activists fought to ensure that the tragedy led to concrete change, making the fire a pivotal moment in the nation’s history, informing workplace fire and safety laws, labor policy and laws, uplifting the labor movement, and even influencing building codes.
In this episode, host Laura Free speaks with Dr. Annelise Orleck, author of “Common Sense and a Little Fire,” to learn about the women who agitated for better working conditions before and after the Triangle Fire. The conversation goes deeper into figures featured in Village Preservation’s StoryMap and blog, Rose Schneiderman, Pauline Newman, and Clara Lemlich had a shared vision for a more equitable society. Together, they organized unions, led strikes, and fought for labor legislation, combating sexist and classist attitudes every step of the way. To exercise their full political power, they needed to make an impact not just on the picket lines but also at the ballot box. They needed the right to vote.
You can find show notes and episode transcripts on the Amended webpage.