Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights
“...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.”
Dr. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee
“I ask for our girls the open door to the treasury of knowledge,” said Mabel Ping-Hua Lee in a 1916 speech at Women’s Political Union’s Suffrage Shop, “the same opportunities for physical development as boys and the same rights of participation in all human activities of which they are individually capable.” She was 19 when she wrote and spoke these words. She was 21 when the 19th Amendment was ratified, granting women in the United States the right to vote. But not women like her.
Mabel was born Oct. 7, 1896 in Guangzhou, China. Her father was Dr. Towe Lee, a reverend, who left for the United States when Mabel was 4. She remained in China in the care of her mother and grandmother. She attended a missionary school and quickly proved to be an exceptionally intelligent child. At age 9, she earned the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship, a controversial program for Chinese students to be educated in the United States. In 1905, Mabel and her mother joined her father abroad. Her mother’s name was recorded in U.S. Census documents as Lennick or Lebrick Lee, and this is the only easily accessible information on the woman who raised Mabel.
“By the beginning of the 20th century the conditions of the great masses of Chinese women may be thus briefly summarized. Politically, of course, they were nonentities,” said 19-year-old Mabel in the speech she titled “China’s Submerged Half. “The scheme of education left them out of consideration because learning was deemed unnecessary for the discharge of their duties as wives and mothers. Those who obtained the rudiments of learning were so rare as to attract notice.”
The Lee family settled in the Chinatown area of New York City. Mabel began her studies at Erasmus College in Brooklyn, a school designated for the increase in immigrant children needing education. There, she continued to impress and excel. She quickly made a name for herself in the local suffragette movement. On May 4, 1912, 16-year-old Mabel mounted a horse and lead, with others, a suffrage parade that started at Greenwich Village and consisted of nearly 10,000 people. This caught the attention of the New York Times and New York Tribune, both of which interviewed young Mabel.
Still a teenager, Mabel began attending Barnard College, an all-female school, studying philosophy and history. She joined the Chinese student group and wrote feminist essays for its monthly newsletter. At 19, she gave her speech to the Women’s Political Union’s Suffrage Shop. She would go on to earn a master’s degree in educational administration from Columbia Teacher’s College, before attending Columbia University and pursuing her PhD in economics. Her PhD research was published a book, “The Economic History of China.” Mabel was the first Chinese woman to ever earn her PhD in economics.
“[W]e students should take a leading part,” Mabel said to the gathered suffragettes in 1916. “To us girls especially, who are among the first to emerge, will fall the duties of pioneers and, if we do our share, ours will be the honor and the glory.”
In 1917, the women of New York City were granted the right to vote. The 19th Amendment followed three years later, extending that right to women across the United States. But for Mabel, the Chinese Exclusion Act, originally signed by President Arthur in 1882 to prohibit Chinese immigration, meant this right was not extended to her community. Chinese people in the United States, even those with citizenship, could not vote.
When her father died in 1924, Mabel took over his role in the First Chinese Baptist Church of New York. She credited the Christian missionaries she’d known as a child for educating so many Chinese women, including herself. “Our statesmen for centur[ies] back have felt the need for female education and must have wished for it,” she said in that 1916 speech. “But what was the good of their mere wishing? The missionaries came in their turn. They not only wished and prayed, but they labored. And it is largely due to their untiring efforts in the face of obstacles well-nigh insurmountable, that the present interest in women’s education owes its existence.” From her post in the church, she worked all the rest of her days for the immigrant Chinese population of New York City. She founded a community center that offered a health clinic, English language classes, job training, and even a kindergarten.
The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943. Mabel died at age 70 in 1966. It’s unknown if she ever pursued United States citizenship and cast the vote she’d fought to gain for others, but her legacy is profound and still felt. In 2018, Manhattan’s Chinatown post office was named in honor of Dr. Mabel Lee. “It is a problem that we do not know our heroes,” Representative Nydia Velazquez, herself the first Puerto Rican woman in the House of Representatives, said at the dedication event. “[W]hen you go to public school and you look at the curriculum, so many times we are denied our place in the history books.”
Mabel knew, had long known, the narrow scope of history books. “Any picture showing the condition of Chinese women throughout the by-gone past, though dark in the main, must be a moving picture to be strictly truthful,” she wrote as a teenager. “Glimpses of light run through every scene. Women of learning, women versed in statecraft, women of commanding intellect and heroines in every walk of life emerged from cramping surroundings and played their parts in the long drama of Chinese history. ... Hampered by crippling foot-bandages and the ever more rigid bonds of old social customs, our women have known no horizon beyond the four walls of their houses. They have received so little education, if any at all, that even in thought they have been practically limited to the area within these walls. That they, in spite of these limitations, have exercised such undeniable influence from time to time, is significant of the power which will be exercised by the Chinese women of the future, who with unbound feet and untrammeled minds, will face a new and dazzling era in the history of her sex.”