Gutsy Woman: Dr. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee

"We all believe in the idea of democracy; woman suffrage, or the feminist movement, is the application of democracy to women.”

As a 16-year-old Chinese immigrant, Mabel Ping-Hua Lee (1897-1966) rode in a white horse brigade leading 10,000 people in one of our nation’s largest marches (1912) for women’s suffrage. Once voting rights for women was achieved, she wouldn’t even be able to vote! At her young age, Mabel was a recognized suffragist and activist. According to a New York Times article of 1912, she was regarded as “the symbol of the new era, when all women will be free and unhampered.” Mabel consistently shattered glass ceilings throughout her life. She became the first Chinese woman to receive a PhD in economics (Colombia University). For her research in agricultural economics, Mabel was also selected by the Board of Council of Columbia University as the University Scholar in Economics! (This was also the first time a Chinese student was awarded this honor.)

Born in Guangzhou (Canton City), China, Mabel lived with her mother and grandmother in Hong Kong. Her father, a missionary, had traveled to the U.S. when she was only four. After studying with private Chinese tutors, Mabel won a Boxer Indemnity Scholarship to attend school in the U.S. (The Scholarship granted her a US visa.) Her family relocated to New York City where they lived in Chinatown beginning in 1905 and Mabel began attending Erasmus Hall Academy.

By age sixteen, the NYT had already written an article highlighting Mabel’s academic accomplishments and aspirations to improve women and girls’ lives. The year following the parade, she began attending Barnard College—a school founded when Columbia University refused admission to women. She began majoring in history and philosophy. Her 1914 essay argued that suffrage for women was necessary to a successful democracy. The extension of democracy (through voting) and “equality of opportunities to women” was the hallmarks of true feminism.” (Were you and I writing essays like that when we were seventeen years old?)

An active member of the Debate Club and the Chinese Students’ Association, Mabel continued her fight for women’s suffrage by writing articles for The Chinese Students’ Monthly. One such article declared, “The welfare of China and possibly its very existence as an independent nation depend on rendering tardy justice to its womankind.” She was intent on championing women’s rights for both American women and Chinese women back home. Mabel also received a master’s degree while at Barnard in educational administration.

Moving on to Columbia University, her continuing fight for feminism and women’s suffrage led her to write, “…The fundamental principle of democracy is equality of opportunity ... It means an equal chance for each man to show what his merits are. ... the feminists want nothing more than the equality of opportunity for women to prove their merits and what they are best suited to do."

Women won the right to vote in the state of New York in 1917. When the 19th amendment was passed (1920), Mabel was unable to vote because of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) prohibiting Chinese immigrants from naturalization. Chinese-American women did not earn the right to vote until 1943, when the Chinese Exclusion Act was done away with.

Did you know?

1.) Manhattan’s Chinatown post office on Doyer’s St. is dedicated to Dr. Mabel Lee and named Mabel Lee Memorial Post Office in her honor (2017).

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