We celebrate the contributions of Dr. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee who was born on October 7, 1896 in China. The daughter of a minister, Mable followed her father many years after he became a missionary to Chinese immigrants in America. She lived in New York City’s Chinatown. Dr. Lee mobilized the Chinese community in America to support women’s right to vote, knowing that as an immigrant who had not achieved citizenship, she would not be able to vote.
At age 16, the suffragist marched in 1912. Like Inez Milholland Boissevain, Mabel mounted a horse to help lead the parade along with other suffrage leaders like Anna Howard Shaw from the National American Women’s Suffrage Association. Shaw carried a National American Women’s Suffrage Association banner that declared, “N.A.W.S.A Catching Up with China” from Greenwich Village, as noted by the New York Times.
Along with noting Dr. Lee’s participation in the suffrage march, the New York Times also noted her impressive academic accomplishment and dedication to improving the lives of girls and women. In 1914 while attending Barnard College she wrote “The Meaning of Women’s Suffrage,” where she wrote:
“We believe in the idea of democracy; woman suffrage or the feminist movement (of which woman suffrage is a fourth part) is the application of democracy to women. … 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.”
Dr. Lee was the first woman to earn a PhD in economics at Columbia University.
Despite her longing to return to China, when her father died in 1924, Dr. Lee took on his position as director of the First Chinese Baptist Church in New York City. She never married, devoting her life to the Chinese Community.
The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943. Despite her leadership in the women’s movement, historians are unaware if this remarkable suffragist ever became a US citizen, or if she ever cast a ballot in the US. She died in 1966.