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Hidden Voices is a collaboration between the NYC Department of Education and the Museum of the City of New York that was initiated to help City students learn about the countless individuals who are often “hidden” from traditional historical records. Each of the people highlighted in this series has made a positive impact on their communities while serving as outstanding examples of leadership, advocacy, and community service.

Today, in celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage (AAPI) Month , we’re telling the story of Dr. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, who came to the United States from China at the age of nine early in the 20th Century and played an instrumental role in the growth of New York’s Chinatown and the universal suffrage movement that advanced voting rights for women.

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Born in Guangzhou, China, Mabel Ping-Hua Lee (1897–1966) emerged as a natural leader and activist as a young girl soon after her emigration to New York City’s Chinatown in 1905, when she was just nine years old. Her father, Dr. Lee To, was a Baptist missionary pastor who had moved to New York City when Mabel was four, while Mabel remained with her mother and grandmother in Hong Kong and learned English at a missionary school there. Under a program supported by President Theodore Roosevelt to improve Chinese-American relations called the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship, Mabel received funding to attend school in the United States, reuniting her family with her father.

While studying at Erasmus Hall Academy in Brooklyn, Mabel took a deep interest in the debate over what would become the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920 guaranteeing women the right to vote, known as suffrage. In 1912, when she was just 16 years old, Mabel helped to organize and lead a horseback parade for women’s suffrage beginning in Greenwich Village that included an estimated 10,000 marchers. In addition, she wrote essays on the topic for the Chinese Students’ Monthly, including one in 1914 titled, “The Meaning of Women’s Suffrage,” and delivered a speech in 1916 to the Women’s Political Union’s Suffrage Shop titled, “China’s Submerged Half.” Focusing on the experiences of women in China, she argued in that speech that even under extreme social marginalization, Chinese women had always made valuable contributions to the direction of the country and therefore should be given full civil rights, including the vote, everywhere.

At the same time, Mabel was an extraordinary student, excelling in English, Latin, and mathematics. She was only 16 years old in 1912 when she was admitted to Barnard College, then the women’s college connected to the all-male Columbia University. After receiving her bachelor’s degree in history and philosophy from Barnard, she went on to earn a master’s degree in educational administration from Columbia’s Teacher’s College, and later pursued a Ph.D. in economics at Columbia. Her Ph.D. research resulted in a book, “The Economic History of China,” and in 1921, she became the first Chinese woman to earn an economics Ph.D.

Headshot of a young Mabel Lee with a caption underneath that says, "Chinese Girl Wants Vote."

Mabel Lee became the face of New York’s Suffragist movement in May 1912 when she led a parade of 10,000 demonstrators as one of 52 women on horseback. She was the only non-white horse rider. (Photo by New York Tribune; used under Creative Commons license)

Throughout her youth, Mabel and her mother had worked with her father’s ministry at the Morningside Mission, raising money for Chinese famine victims and supporting the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). In 1924, when Mabel’s father died, she felt obligated to take over his work, assuming leadership over the church he founded, the First Chinese Baptist Church of New York City, and serving as her widowed mother’s primary caretaker. She devoted herself to the people of Chinatown, faithfully carrying on her father’s spirit and mission for the next 40 years. Later she would use her own money to open the Chinese Christian Center, a service organization that provided Chinatown residents with a health clinic, kindergarten, job training, and English classes.

Although the 19th Amendment’s ratification in 1920 granted female American citizens the right to vote, Mabel herself was denied suffrage until 1943’s repeal of the federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prevented Chinese immigrants from becoming U.S. citizens and thereby gaining the right to vote.  Though excluded from the victory that she had fought so hard for, Mabel continued to work to improve the world she was given, focusing her efforts on helping the citizens of Chinatown transform both New York and China into more equitable societies for women. Overall, Mabel made three trips to China between 1923 and 1937, and during this time, she considered staying to open up a school for girls. Unfortunately, civil war between Nationalists and Communists in China made it difficult to sustain her work in the country. Mabel eventually stopped visiting and working in China altogether following Japan’s invasion of the country in 1937, and spent the rest of her life in the U.S. in service to the people of Chinatown and greater New York.

Dr. Mabel Lee died in 1966 at the age of 69. In 2018, the City’s Chinatown Post Office was officially renamed, “the Mabel Lee Memorial Post Office,” under federal legislation introduced by New York Congresswoman Nydia M. Velasquez. Upon the renaming of the Post Office, Velasquez said, “At a time when women were widely expected to spend a life in the home, Lee shattered one glass ceiling after another. From speaking out in the classroom to organizing Chinese-American women to secure the right to vote, Lee’s bold vision for Chinatown is very much alive today.”

Photo of Mabel Lee's family; Mabel's mother on the left, father on the right, and Dr. Lee in the middle

This fascinating photo of Dr. Mabel Lee and her family features Dr. Lee’s mother, Lai Beck (left), and Lee To (right), Dr. Lee’s father. This seating arrangement seen in this photo isn’t normal for the 1920s—Mabel’s place at the center of the photo, standing over her parents, is a sign of the great expectations that were held for her at the time. (Photo by Unknown; retaken by Bayer Lee. Used under Creative Commons license, and found on Humanities NY.)

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Sources

  • “Chinese Girl Wants Vote” New York Tribune, 13 April, 1912, pg. 8

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NYC Department of Education, 2019