In 1917, New York State voters finally approved women’s suffrage, despite having rejected it in a referendum just two years earlier. The majority of the pro-suffrage votes came from New York City, where women’s suffragists ran a tremendously organized campaign to reach male voters. The campaign’s participants included Mabel Lee, a 22 year old Hong Kong-born Barnard graduate and the daughter of Chinatown minister and community leader Lee To and his wife (whose name census takers rendered as “Lannick” and “Libreck” Lee, among other versions). During the suffrage campaign, Lee lived with her parents in this modest tenement at 53 Bayard Street in Chinatown.
Lee gained her first experience in politics while at Barnard, where she campaigned against T.V. Soong–later the brother-in-law of Chiang Kai-shek and a high official in the Republic of China–for the presidency of the Chinese Students’ Association. According to religious history scholar Timothy Tseng, Lee lost due possibly to “some manipulation of the ballots by Soong,” and this seemed to have hardened her already pro-women’s suffrage views. Not only did she write and speak publicly in favor of women’s suffrage, but she also participated in the Women’s Political Equality League and led a contingent of Chinese and Chinese American women in a May 1917 pro-suffrage parade in New York City. Her mother supported her position and advocated women’s suffrage as well. However, under U.S. law, the women could not naturalize because of their race (it is unclear if Mabel Lee did eventually naturalize once the law changed in 1943). As a result, the Lees still could not vote once New York granted women that right.
In addition to her political activities, Lee continued her education, studying political science and economic history at Columbia and earning a Ph.D.–the first Chinese woman to receive that degree from the university. Soon after, her father died of a heart attack, and the American Baptist Home Mission Society appointed her to replace him. Although an ardent Christian, Lee had no formal training for the position, and she seemed to have viewed it as temporary–at least initially. Even as Lee ran the mission, she maintained an affiliation with Columbia’s Department of Economics. And in the 1920s and 1930s, she also made three trips to China, where she received job offers; apparently, she contemplated joining the many others of her generation who, because of US racial discrimination and a sense of duty to China, were moving to their parents’ native land and looking for work there.
However, Lee’s third trip to China took place in 1937, the year the Japanese invaded that country, and the long war that followed helped her make up her mind once and for all. She settled permanently in New York and began lobbying both the Mission Society and local Chinese American organizations to help fund a Chinese Christian Center. The new community center at 21 Pell Street offered Chinese New Yorkers access to English classes, health services, and a kindergarten. Lee also continued to run the First Chinese Baptist Church at the same location.
As Timothy Tseng has documented, Mabel Lee fought for many years to gain independence from the white religious leaders who wished to control her church, but she also encountered significant difficulties in a changing postwar Chinatown. Her congregation had shrunken significantly by the time she died in 1966. Still, the First Chinese Baptist Church she helped build remains a fixture in Chinatown even today.
Sources for this post include Timothy Tseng, “Dr. Mabel Lee: The Intersticial Career of a
Protestant Chinese American Woman, 1924-1950″ (unpublished paper presented at the 1996 Organization of American Historians Convention); Timothy Tseng, “Unbinding Their Souls: Chinese Protestant Women in Twentieth-Century America,” in Women and Twentieth Century Protestantism, eds. Margaret Lamberts Bendroth and Virginia Lieson Brereton; Jonathan Soffer’s work on women’s suffrage in New York State; Womenofwonder.us; New York Times; and Ancestry.com. For more about Mabel Lee, visit Timothy Tseng’s blog.