In 1900, at a time when the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banned most Chinese immigration and reflected a climate of deep anti-Asian prejudice, 9-year-old Mabel Ping-Hua Lee came to America from China on a scholarship to attend school. At 16, she would cement her place in women’s suffrage history, helping to lead a storied New York City march.
But while she fought for women’s voting rights, she herself would not be eligible to cast a ballot for decades after the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920. That’s because the Exclusion Act prohibited Chinese immigrants from obtaining any rights of American citizenship.
Still, Lee continued to fight—not only for suffrage, but for education and equality—for women on both sides of the world, while working locally to raise up her own Chinatown community.
Suffragists Tapped Into Chinese Politics
How did an immigrant teenager living in New York’s insular Chinatown attract the attention of voting rights activists? In 1911, when a revolution upended China’s imperial system and established the Republic of China, U.S. suffragists took note of news that women there, while long subjugated, had gained some voting rights. In the spring of 1912, they reached out to Chinese enclaves around the U.S., inviting women to white suffrage meetings to share tales of women’s role in the uprising. Mabel Lee, still in high school but already active politically, was among the invited speakers.
Lee and her family, who immigrated under a slim exception to the Exclusion Act, held prominent roles in New York City’s Chinese community. Her father served as a Baptist missionary pastor in Chinatown, and both parents worked for the church as teachers. They raised their daughter to be politically aware and modern, refusing to bind her feet as her mother’s had been—a stark reminder of how Chinese women had been traditionally held back for centuries. As a teen, Mabel worked in the community YWCA and helped raise money for Chinese famine victims.
At the suffrage meeting, 16-year-old Lee spoke about her beliefs of equal educational opportunities for Chinese children in New York City and the discrimination Chinese women faced in America.
Her presence impressed the suffragists, prompting them to invite Lee to help lead New York City’s upcoming 1912 suffrage parade.
The New-York Tribune, one of several newspapers that trumpeted her role in the upcoming parade, cited her “brilliant accomplishments” and credited her family: “Miss Lee inherits from her father a strong mind and an admiration for American institutions. This mind is, indeed, so strong that it compels her to look through what she considers the one defect in the institutions—namely, the limited franchise (suffrage).”
Lee Rode at the Head of the Suffrage March
On May 4 of that year, Lee was among several dozen women riding on horseback ahead of an estimated 10,000 protesters (including many sympathetic men). They marched up Fifth Avenue, starting in Greenwich Village and ending at Carnegie Hall.
The New York Times, in its extensive, multi-page coverage of the event, reported that the advance guard on horseback (Lee among them) wore black three-cornered hats and “Votes for Women” sashes. The Times noted that least one of the parade banners expressed suffragists’ support for their Chinese sisters in America, reading: “Women Vote in China, But Are Classed With Criminals and Paupers in New York.” And it made mention of Lee’s mother and other women from New York’s Chinatown who marched with the sign “Light from China.”
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She Continued Speaking Out for Women’s Rights
After the parade, Lee attended Barnard College and went on to earn a Master’s degree from Columbia Teachers College. Later, at Columbia, she became the first Chinese American woman to earn a doctorate in economics.
Throughout, she continued fight for women’s voting rights—and more. In May 1914, at the age of 18, she published “The Meaning of Woman Suffrage” in the college’s The Chinese Student Monthly, where she wrote that “the fundamental principle of democracy is equality of opportunity,” including the right for women’s suffrage. In 1915, she presented a speech, “The Submerged Half,” that argued for gender equality in China.
“I plead for a wider sphere of usefulness for the long submerged women of China,” Lee said in the speech. “I ask for our girls the open door to the treasury of knowledge, the same opportunities for physical development as boys and the same rights of participation in all human activities of which they are individually capable.”
And in 1917, Lee led another suffrage parade, this time consisting of Chinese and Chinese Americans.
“She did all of this at a time where there was something called the Asiatic Barred Zone,” says Queens College President Frank Wu, who specializes in Asian American and Pacific Islander history. Given the limitations this "zone" put on Chinese immigrants in America, “Mabel’s accomplishments are remarkable, period.”
Lee Herself Wasn't Eligible to Vote Until the 1940s
Despite Lee’s activism championing women’s suffrage, she wouldn’t be able to vote until long after the 19th Amendment passed—when the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943.
Still, according to Lauren Nechamkin, director of education at the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City, Lee did all of this because women’s suffrage in America embodied the egalitarian ideals she believed in. She also hoped it would give rights to—and help to lift up—a part of her own community: Chinese Americans born in the U.S. “While it was completely selfless for her to do this, knowing that [suffrage] wouldn’t apply to her for some time to come, it doesn’t mean that the hope for this equality of opportunity is not out there,” says Nechamkin.
Her goal was to eventually return to China to fight for equal educational opportunities with women there. But she never permanently returned. When her father died in 1924, she became the director of the First Chinese Baptist Church in New York City, shifting much of her focus to providing resources to her local Chinese community. There, she was known for founding the Chinese Christian Center which had a health clinic, kindergarten, vocational training and English classes.
Lee accomplished much in her life up until her death in 1966. “What’s most shocking is that it doesn’t seem like anyone knows if she ever did vote…once all the barriers were finally removed,” says Nechamkin.
Even so, she helped pave the way for others to do so, adding a valuable voice to the women’s suffrage movement, one that would continue until the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
WATCH: Fight the Power: The Movements that Changed America, premieres Saturday, June 19 at 8/7c on The HISTORY® Channel.