Never Heard of Her: Mabel Lee

“CHINESE GIRL WANTS VOTE,” The New York Tribune reported on April 13, 1912. That “girl” was “little Miss Mabel Lee,” a Barnard-bound teen suffragist who’d be helping lead a massive march for the women’s vote that May. While the clipping is jingoistic journalism 101, Mabel's writeup offers a glimpse into life as a first-generation Chinese-American woman at the turn of the century.

Mable Lee in the New York Tribune on April 13, 1912.

Take Mabel's mother. She wouldn’t dare join her in the demonstration, the Tribune reported, because it would be physically impossible for her to walk that far on her still-bound feet. Plus, a lady of her status in Chinese culture wouldn’t dare fraternize in the streets; wealthy, white suffragists weren’t terribly fond of it, either.

Not Mabel. Riding on horseback at the front of the procession, she’d be saddle to saddle with the socialite parade marshalls.

"She will be clad,” The Tribune reported on Mabel’s parade outfit.”Like the rich and fashionable suffragettes around her, in a tight fitting black broadcloth hat, with the green, purple and white cockade of the Women's Political Union."

The Women's Political Union, which become the Women's Social and Political Union, also had a strong pin game.

The Women's Political Union, which become the Women's Social and Political Union, also had a strong pin game.

Mabel’s dream, she told the newspaper, was to return to China someday and advocate for women’s education and political enfranchisement. But that was merely a means to another end. With more intelligence and social sensibility, women would make for better, more interesting wives, she reasoned. (In fact, Mable ended up following in her father's footsteps and leading the First Chinese Baptist Church of New York for more than 40 years.)

“The American ideal is to help the girl toward her own improvements for her own pleasure,” Mabel told the Tribune. “It seems to me that each nation has something to learn from the other.”

Ah, cultural context. Such a necessary curveball.