Mabel Ping-Hua Lee

Mabel Ping-Hua Lee

(1897-1966)

DJ Name: Maybe It’s Mabel Lee

A century plus one year ago, women finally got the right to vote. Or as this week’s Historic Shuffler, Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, said, “democracy was extended to women.” Specifically, democracy was extended to white American women, but Mabel, who was a Chinese immigrant, became an active suffragist and led marches all throughout New York City as a teenager. She had big dreams in the concrete jungle of bringing the burgeoning suffrage movement in the U.S. to China. Though her plans were thwarted and life got in the way of her big dreams, women like Mabel paved the way for Emmy and Camille to roll up to the polls and leave with an “I voted” sticker that’s sole purpose is to be put on their Instagram stories, duh. 

As Mabel grew up and became an outspoken proponent of #girl #power, she curated this playlist and asks you plug your phone into the aux and shuffle up these tunes.

Mabel Ping-Hua Lee was born on October 7, 1897, in Guangzhou (Canton City), China. Her dad, Dr. Lee Towe, was a missionary pastor and, when Mabel was four years old, he moved to the U.S. to spread the Good Word (trademark pending) at a church in NYC’s Chinatown. Mabel stayed in China with her mom and grandma and studied with private tutors. When she was nine, she won the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship, which allowed her to relocate to the U.S. and attend school there. The Lee fam’s immigration was a big deal: Then as now, the U.S. was super discriminatory and was currently barring Chinese people from entering its borders through legislation such as the Chinese Exclusion Act

But may we please remind you that in the oh-so wise words of Cher Horowitz, it does not say “RSVP” on the Statue of Liberty. White nativists out West were salty about immigrants such as the Chinese from entering the country and taking up jobs such as railroad workers and prospectors (wah!), so this legislation was aimed at appeasing these non-white-collar white workers out west (we love alliteration here at Historic Shuffle!). Plus, naturalization was banned, so Chinese immigrants’ path to becoming full citizens was long and difficult. So when Mabel and her famiLEE arrived in the U.S., they joined a pretty small group of Chinese teachers, merchants, diplomats and missionaries who had made it to America.  

But the Lee fam, and Mabel in particular, would not be deterred. They settled into their new home on Bayard Street, where Mabel developed strong feelings about how the J train sucked but the Z train was OK, if it ever showed up that is. Because there were few other Chinese people in Manhattan, Mabel grew up being ogled, which can’t be the comfiest feeling ever. Mabel’s mom, who had followed tradition back in China and bound her feet as a young girl, rarely left their home because her feet were only a few inches long. But Mabel refused to be bullied into silence, and instead made sure her voice was heard. 

As a teen, she became a frequent contributor to a monthly magazine for Chinese students in America, and she could often be found with a megaphone outside the Canal Street station trying to get people to sign her change.org petition to let ladies vote. JK, all of that is probably false, but Mabel did give speeches in the city, arguing for a transnational vision of democracy based on women and men’s equality, peppered with some Christian views of equality that made her pastor papa proud. Mabel celebrated her sweet sixteen by taking the mic on the streets of NYC and leading a suffrage parade on horseback. She guided nearly 10,000 people in one of the biggest marches for women’s suffrage that the good ole’ U.S. of A had seen. They rallied and cried, “Votes for Women,” “Votes for Women,” and, most importantly, “Votes. For. Women.” and rode all around Manhattan. 

Mabel furthered her education by attending Erasmus Hall Academy in Brooklyn (whaddup, Emmy!) with other immigrant children who came to America with their parents. Mabel got her undergrad degree from Barnard College. While there, she could often be found chillin’ at Morningside Park with her number one girl, Lady Liberty, in between classes. Then she skrrrted across the street to Columbia University to receive her master’s degree from the Teachers College, and then to pursue her Ph.D. in economics. Why didn’t she just get her three degrees as a Lioness at Columbia, you ask? ‘Cause Columbia didn’t initially allow women to enroll (rude) so Barnard was founded so ladies could go to college to get more knowledge, too, duh. 

Mabel joined the Chinese Students’ Association and was involved in the suffrage movement throughout college. In one of her essays, she argued that suffrage for women was necessary to a successful democracy because equality of opportunities to women was one of the key hallmarks of true feminism. And that’s the equaliTEA on that. Mabel’s essays made some waves and, because she was Chinense, she caught the attention of other suffragists. When China’s Qing dynasty was overthrown and a republic was established, women who were long oppressed were granted the right to vote. Suffragists stateside began to reach out to Chinese women and invite them to suffrage meetings so they could share how the ladies back in China played a key role in the uprising against the dynasty. 

So, Mabel was invited to give a speech by the Women’s Political Union Suffrage Shop. While at the podium, Mabel encouraged her Chinese community in America to promote girls’ education, civic participation and called out discrimination against Chinese women specifically. Twenty or so years before she could officially #vote, Mabel Lee tossed her tassel cap in the air and collected her diploma in 1921 and became the first Chinese woman to graduate with a Ph.D. in economics. That same year (because graduating wasn’t enough), Mabel published her Ph.D. research and titled it Mabels’ Macroeconomic Theory. Jk. It was called The Economic History of China.

Women in New York were granted the right to vote and following that, the 19th Amendment was ratified which allowed white ladies around the nation to fill out a ballot (thanks to a deciding vote cast by fellow Historic Shuffler, Jeannette Rankin. Wondering how a lady got to vote to pass the 19th Amendment before women could even, well, vote? Read about Jammin’ Jeannette here.)

Ok back to Mabel…so even though some women could vote, not all could. And this excluded group included women of color and, specifically in relation to Mabel, Chinese women.

It would take another score of years for Mabel to be given the right to vote because first the Chinese Exclusion Act needed to be repealed, which finally happened in 1943. During the years of waiting, Mabel did not stop advocating for suffrage for all women (just like another fellow shuffler, Fannie Lou Hamer, who advocated for voting equality and got people to the polls. Read about her here.) With the repeal of the Exclusion Act, Chinese immigrants were allowed into the U.S. and Naturalization was permitted AKA the Chinese population in America began to grow as people became citizens. 

Mabel’s goal was to eventually return home to China and open an all-girls school. She wanted Chinese women to experience the same educational opportunities that American women had and to promote educational equality throughout China. Sadly, her father’s death in the early 1920s deterred Mabel from returning home. She took over his role as director of the First Chinese Baptist Church and opened the Chinese Christian Center, which offered a health clinic, kindergarten, vocational training and English classes. 

Mabel Lee lived the rest of her life in New York City. She passed away in 1966 at the age of 70. It’s unfortunately not known if Mabel ever became an official U.S. Citizen so we don’t know if she ever pulled up to the polls and cast a ballot. However, we do know that her activism made a difference when Mabel took the mic at march after march alongside suffragists and advocates  and said, “Excuse me, America, imma let you maybe finish in a minute, but you gotta hear me out when I say all women need the right to vote because, ‘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.’” *mic drop* 

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