Mabel Ping-Hua Lee

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Mabel Ping-Hua Lee (1896–1966) was a Chinese advocate for women's suffrage in the United States, a member of the Women's Political Equality League[1], the "de-facto minister of the Chinese Baptist Mission"[2], and the head of the First Chinese Baptist Church in New York's Chinatown for more than 40 years. She believed that Christianity would help the Chinese people only if it was Chinese-led, rather than white Protestantism. A Chinese nationalist, she knew Hu Shih personally.[3]

Mabel Lee pictured in the April 13, 1912 New York Tribune
A young Mabel Lee during her time at Barnard College in the Chinese Student Monthly, 1915

Early life and education[edit]

Mabel Lee was born in Guangzhou, China, in 1896.[4] Her father was Lee To, a Baptist minister who emigrated to the United States and became a leading member of the Chinese community in New York's Chinatown. Her mother's name is recorded in US census documents alternately as Lennick or Libreck Lee.[5]

Lee spent her early childhood in China, attending a missionary school where she learned English. She won a Boxer Indemnity Scholarship which helped her come to the U.S. and she joined her parents in 1904, shortly after her father took over a Baptist mission, Morningstar Mission, in New York City.[6][7] Her family lived at 53 Bayard St. in Chinatown where she attended New York City’s public schools.[5][7]

In 1913, Lee went to Barnard College and majored in history and philosophy.[6] She joined the Debating Club and Chinese Students Association and even ran an unsuccessful bid against T.V. Soong for president of the association in the fall of 1916. Lee also wrote essays for The Chinese Students’ Monthly, championing woman’s suffrage and arguing equality as necessary in a democracy .[4][8][6]

After receiving her undergraduate degree, Lee studied for her doctorate in political science and economic history at Columbia University. In 1922, Lee became the first Chinese woman to receive a PhD. from Columbia University.[3] Her dissertation was titled "The Economic History of China: With Special Reference to Agriculture."[5]

After her studies, which included a trip to France to study European Economics, the University of Amoy in China offered her a position as a dean of women.[6] She declined the offer and continued her work in Chinatown. She may have not moved to China due to an opportunity at a Chinese export firm, the death of her father, and the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937.[2][4]

Women's suffrage[edit]

Lee was a participant in the campaign for women's suffrage in New York state. In 1912, she led a contingent of Chinese and Chinese American women in a large parade in support of women's voting rights with Anna Howard Shaw. On horseback, she carried a banner with Shaw that stated: "N.A.W.S.A Catching Up with China".[9] She was a member of the Women's Political Equality League.[1] Lee wrote articles advocating for women's suffrage and gender equality, including a piece in Chinese Students' Monthly titled "The Meaning of Woman Suffrage."[4] In 1915 she gave a speech called "China's Submerged Half" during a Suffrage workshop. In it she stated:

"The welfare of China and possibly its very existence as an independent nation depend on rendering tardy justice to its womankind. For no nation can ever make real and lasting progress in civilization unless its women are following close to its men if not actually abreast with them."[4]

Even after New York State granted women the right to vote, Lee herself was unable to exercise that right because of the discriminatory naturalization laws of the time. The Chinese Exclusion Act, which was not repealed until 1943, barred Chinese immigrants from the process of naturalization.[1]


The First Chinese Baptist Church at 21 Pell Street, founded by Mabel Lee in 1926

When Lee's father died suddenly in 1924, she took over his role as head of the Baptist mission in Chinatown at the age of 28.[10] Although this was meant to be a temporary position, it would become her life's work. Lee traveled three times to China during the 1920s and 1930s, and even had job offers awaiting her there, but she eventually chose to settle permanently in New York and focus on her father's church.[6]

Lee began raising funds from the American Baptist Home Mission Society and local Chinese American organizations to found a Chinese Christian community center in memory of her father. In 1926, she purchased a building to open this center at 21 Pell Street in Chinatown. The center offered English classes, a medical clinic, and a kindergarten. Lee believed that an independent Chinese church was crucial for providing support and a feeling of freedom to its community members, who were otherwise marginalized and oppressed in American society.[4] These views sometimes brought her into conflict with the larger white-led Baptist mission in New York City, and in 1954 Lee was able to secure the title for the church building on behalf of her congregation, which from then on became fully independent. Paradoxically, this independence coincided with the increasing secularization of younger generations of Chinese Americans, and led to dwindling membership at the church.[2] However, under her leadership the church became the first "self-supporting Chinese church in America."[6] As a bilingual Chinese-American, Lee was able to provide significant assistance to the Chinese immigrant community for example providing classes in the English language, typewriting, among other useful skills.[6] In many ways the church functioned as an underground social service center for the Chinese community.

Lee continued to run the church and community center until her death in 1966. She was 70 years old.[5]


In November 2017, a motion was introduced in Congress by Rep. Nydia Velazquez to rename the Chinatown Station U.S. Post Office at 6 Doyers Street in honor of Mabel Lee.[11] The bill was passed in the U.S. House of Representatives in March 2018.[12]

In March 2018, Lee was honored as one of a featured series of women's suffrage activists displayed on LinkNYC kiosks in New York City as part of a partnership with the Museum of the City of New York.[13]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "Beyond Suffrage: "Working Together, Working Apart" How Identity Shaped Suffragists' Politics". Museum of the City of New York. Retrieved 2018-10-31.
  2. ^ a b c Tseng, Timothy (2002). "Unbinding Their Souls: Chinese Protestant Women in Twentieth-Century America". In Bendroth, Margaret Lamberts; Brereton, Virginia Lieson. Women and Twentieth-Century Protestantism. University of Illinois Press. pp. 136–163.
  3. ^ a b Lindley, Susan Hill (2008). The Westminster Handbook to Women in American Religious History. Westminster John Knox Press. p. 130.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Tseng, Timothy (1996). "Dr. Mabel Lee: The Intersticial Career of a Protestant Chinese American Woman, 1924-1950" (PDF). presented at the 1996 Organization of American Historians meeting.
  5. ^ a b c d "#20: Suffragist Landmark » Asian American History in NYC". Retrieved 2018-03-09.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Tseng, Timothy (2017-06-01). "Chinatown's Suffragist, Pastor, and Community Organizer". Christianity Today. Retrieved 2018-03-09.
  7. ^ a b Tseng, Tim. "Chinatown's Suffragist, Pastor, and Community Organizer". Christian History | Learn the History of Christianity & the Church. Retrieved 2019-02-06.
  8. ^ "New York City's Chinatown Post Office Named in Honor of Dr. Mabel Lee '1916 | Barnard College". Retrieved 2019-02-06.
  9. ^ Chapman, Mary; Mills, Angela (2011). Treacherous Texts: U.S. Suffrage Literature, 1846-1946. Rutgers University Press. p. 165. ISBN 9780813549590.
  10. ^ Hall, Bruce (2002-01-15). Tea That Burns: A Family Memoir of Chinatown. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 9780743236591.
  11. ^ "Velazquez Moves to Rename Doyers Street Post Office For Suffragette Mabel Lee | The Lo-Down : News from the Lower East Side". The Lo-Down : News from the Lower East Side. 2017-11-29. Retrieved 2018-03-09.
  12. ^ "Doyers Street Post Office Edges Closer to Honoring Chinese American Suffragette". Bowery Boogie. 2018-03-26. Retrieved 2018-04-12.
  13. ^ Warerkar, Tanay. "LinkNYC and Museum of the City of New York team up to honor women activists". Curbed NY. Retrieved 2018-03-09.