The grand mythology of suffrage begins in 1848 Seneca Falls, New York. Here, heroine Elizabeth Cady Stanton forms her origin story, quite literally declaring grievances against woman. Primary among them is a woman’s lack of the franchise, lack of wage opportunity, and paucity of educational advancement. Her call to arms is bolstered by the Coffin Sisters, Lucretia and Martha. In 1851, the mythology becomes grander when Susan B. Anthony joins the crusade. In the years to follow, a call sheet of names forms a small, but mighty army that fights with oration, essay, and action. These women should be and are celebrated for their Olympic feats, immortalized as the goddesses of gaining the vote. While some of them never saw the passage of the 19th amendment, they knew that their enfranchisement could be a reality one day.
But what if the prize of the battle was not meant for you? Would the exclusivity drive you away, or would the mere concept of making the big picture brighter suffice? For Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, great gain for womankind meant nothing for her personal enfranchisement.
Born in Guangzhou (Canton), China in 1896, Mabel Lee’s laboring, Protestant Christian family immigrated to New York’s Chinatown in the early 20th century. Fluent in the English language via missionary school, Rev. Lee To, Mabel’s father, quickly established himself as part of Chinatown’s intellectual elite. He widely preached for social reform, applying this rhetoric to a possibility of a republican China.
These literal sermons of progress and social goodness were not lost on Mabel, who became vocal at a young age. Supported by a politically active mother, Mabel most prominently enters the suffragist mythoscape in 1912. At 16 and a freshman at Barnard College, Mabel joined a suffragist march of 10,000 women in Greenwich Village. She rallied other Chinese and Chinese-American women to join the march; this was just one instance of Mabel’s continuous efforts to spur the Chinese community to action, namely to education women and encourage civic engagement. Not only did she support suffrage, Mabel quite literally took on the role of mythological, crusading leader. She headed the New York march on horseback, employing the visual mechanisms of glorious war.
By age 18, Mabel was authoring essays on feminism and the vote. In May 1914, she wrote: “We all believe in the idea of democracy; woman suffrage or the feminist movement…is the application of democracy to women.” Suffrage, therefore, was a necessary benchmark to measure a true democracy. She argued for this from four angles of theory (religious/spiritual, legal, political, and economic) and dismantled common arguments against suffrage. Mabel organized suffrage rallies and parades, spoke to pro-feminism organizations (both Chinese and American), and continued to write on a women’s right to civic engagement until the ratification of suffrage in New York in 1917, and nationally in 1920.
At 24 years of age, Mabel had been fighting for suffrage since she was a young teenager. By this point, she was Barnard graduate and a doctoral student at Columbia University (she would become the first Chinese woman to receive a PhD from the school). The New York Times and the New York Tribune had covered her oratories, and she led literal thousands to gain the vote—just not hers.
The 19th amendment left a complicated legacy in terms of who gained a true right to vote. While the lauded heroines discussed earlier would have been enfranchised under the 19th amendment, many were not.
Though formally recognized under the 19th amendment, African-American women found the right to vote was given to them in name only, not in practice. More than three million women, predominantly below the Mason-Dixon Line, would be subjugated to voter suppression, including poll taxes, intimidation, and violence.
Latina women, like Maria de Lopez, provided suffrage materials in Spanish and campaigned for the vote on behalf of the Latin community. She would be enfranchised by California’s passage of the vote in 1911, though her counterparts in Puerto Rico would be denied the vote until 1935 (and even then, only literate women could vote).
Native women were also excluded from the 19th amendment as, at the time, they could not become citizens of the United States. Native suffragettes Zitkala-Ša and Susette LaFlesche Tibbles were the active leaders of Native American rights, and their continual advocation of indigenous land rights and cultural identity won them citizenship, and therefore suffrage for all native people born in the United States vis a vis the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act.
For Mabel and her Chinese/Chinese-American suffragists, the vote would not become a reality for many decades. The Immigration Act of 1882 federally outlawed the permanent immigration of Chinese nationals; Chinese and other East Asian immigrants were not permitted to be naturalized, and therefore Asian women were not enfranchised in 1920. To further entrench Asian immigrants’ statuses as aliens, a 1922 Supreme Court ruling explicitly barred Japanese and South Asian immigrants from naturalization as well.
It was not until 1943 that members of the Chinese diaspora community could become citizens, and it was not until 1952 that other Asian American populations were enfranchised. Mabel Lee passed away in 1966, living to see her community gain the right to vote. It is unclear, however, if Mabel ever became a citizen herself or if she ever voted in the United States. Upon her father’s passing in 1924, Mabel took over the directorship of the American Baptist Home Mission Society and the New York City Baptist Mission. She made herself a fixture in the Chinese American social services community and lived out the rest of her days in New York’s Chinatown. Why Mabel never left the church and why her political aspirations dimmed in her later life, we may never know.
Her legacy embodies service above self. Her efforts, she knew, would impact womankind, though she herself may have to wait longer. Mabel and her Asian-American community are not alone in their exclusion from suffrage’s grand mythology, but these women—Mabel, Maria De Lopez, Soujourner Truth, Zitkala-Ša—help complete a much bigger picture of suffrage’s history.
by Sharon Kong-Perring, board member and docent at the Loring Greenough House
This post is part of our Suffrage at 100 Series sponsored by Sazama Real Estate
Brooks, C. Posted on. Asian American History in NYC, 25 Aug. 2014, blogs.baruch.cuny.edu/asianamericanhistorynyc/?p=435.
“Dr. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee (U.S. National Park Service).” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 2020, www.nps.gov/people/mabel-lee.htm.
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Martínez, Roberta H. Latinos in Pasadena. Arcadia, 2009.
Starin, Dawn. “For Mabel Lee, a Pioneer for Suffrage, Some Recognition at Last.” Prospect Magazine, 6 Nov. 2019, www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/world/mabel-lee-a-pioneer-for-suffrage-some-recognition-at-last-united-states-19th-amendment.