19th Amendment at 100: Mabel Ping-Hua Lee

The 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, but this landmark event was neither the beginning nor the end of the story for women and their struggle for the right to vote. Join us in 2020 as we commemorate this centennial year with 12 stories from our holdings for you to save, print, or share. May’s featured image is of Mabel Ping-Hua Lee.

Today’s blog post is from guest contributor Angela Tudico, archives specialist at the National Archives at New York City.

Born in Canton (now Guangzhou), China, in 1896, Mabel Ping-Hua Lee moved to New York City with her missionary father and their family during the era of Chinese Exclusion. 

From 1882 to 1943, the United States severely curtailed immigration from China through a series of acts passed by Congress. The Chinese Exclusion Acts were the first pieces of legislation to limit immigration to the United States based on country of origin, but they permitted exceptions for certain groups such as students, merchants, and missionaries like Lee’s father—underscoring the class-based component to the Chinese Exclusion laws born partially out of nativist economic fears about losing jobs to new immigrants.

Perhaps not as well known but equally important to understanding the restrictions of this era, the Chinese Exclusion Acts also prohibited Chinese immigrants from becoming U.S. citizens, rendering them unable to vote. 

This radio telegram confirmed for the Immigration and Naturalization (INS) Service that Mabel Lee had boarded the steamer Yokohama Maru on October 20, 1929, corroborating what Lee had told the INS in an immigration interview conducted when Lee wanted to travel abroad in 1937. The telegraph comes from Lee’s Chinese Exclusion Act case file, held in the National Archives at New York City.

This did not stop Mable Ping-Hua Lee from fighting for suffrage, however. A member of the New York Women’s Political Equality League and an outspoken feminist, Lee began writing and speaking publicly about woman suffrage while a teenager. Notably, in May of 1912 she joined other suffragists to lead a parade (on horseback!) down the streets of New York City in support of votes for women in front of thousands of supporters. She later led a contingent of Chinese and Chinese American women in a New York City suffrage parade in 1917.

Lee marched for women’s enfranchisement even though she was barred from becoming a U.S. citizen because of her race. As a result, she remained unable to vote when New York adopted woman suffrage in 1917 and after the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920. 

Like some of the women in our previous posts, Lee fought for suffrage even though she herself had no hope of immediately or directly benefiting from it, forcing us to rethink the typical suffragette and the long-term strategies these women employed to gain equality for themselves and their communities.

Beyond suffrage, Lee was an accomplished scholar and vital part of Manhattan’s Chinatown.  Lee attended Barnard College and in 1921 became the first Chinese woman to earn a Ph.D. from Columbia University. Her degree in economics took her abroad, as noted in her Chinese Exclusion Act Case File at the National Archives at New York City. Lee went on to serve as director of the Chinese Christian Center at the New York City Baptist Mission Society and as a Baptist pastor for nearly 30 years. 

Unidentified Newspaper Clipping of Mabel Ping-Hua Lee (ca.1923),  Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Record Group 85; National Archives at New York

Lee’s Chinese Exclusion Act Case File contains much more information about her student status and subsequent careers than her activism in the suffrage movement, as this information would have been most relevant to her immigrant status and ability to leave and reenter the United States.

Chinese Exclusion Act Case Files at National Archives locations across the country offer a glimpse into the efforts of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to monitor the movement of Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans in and out of the country during the exclusion era, but often they also contain detailed information about the lives of these individuals and their families.

Part of this blog post was adapted from exhibit text written by curator Corinne Porter for Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote

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