The Suffragist's Rainbow
Did you know that Tye Leung Schulze (1887-1972), the first Chinese woman to vote in the U.S. and perhaps in the world, was a pinball wizard? She was born into a large family in San Francisco’s Chinatown and escaped an arranged marriage by running away to the Presbyterian Mission. There, she pursued her education and worked with the mission as a court translator to help free Chinese women from sex slavery. Leung later took the Civil Service Exam and went to work as a translator at the Angel Island Immigration Station, becoming the first Chinese woman to be employed by the U.S. government.
California women achieved suffrage in October 1911. Leung voted in the 1912 presidential primary, becoming one of the few Chinese persons allowed to vote in the U.S. during the first half of the 20th century. After the death of her husband, she worked, raised her children, and provided translation services for San Francisco’s Chinese community. In the 1930’s, she was well known in her community as a pinball wizard. When she was 61 years old, she was arrested and charged with driving women to abortion clinics. She was acquitted.
Most Chinese women who participated in the U.S. suffrage movement never attained citizenship, much less the right to vote. In fact, few Chinese women lived in the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century. Most of the Chinese immigrants to the U.S. in the 19th century were men who came to work on the railroads and in the mines. Negative stereotypes led to severe laws that restricted immigration from China and barred Chinese from becoming U.S. citizens. Chinese suffragists in the U.S. worked for women’s rights in China, as well as in the U.S.
The most famous American Chinese suffragist was Dr. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee (1896-1966). Her parents were exempt from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1875 because they were teachers with the Baptist Church, and the family settled in New York City. Mabel Lee’s parents encouraged education, and her mother was aware of feminists working for women’s rights in China. Mabel Lee went to public school and was the only Chinese person in her graduating class. She, her parents, and other Chinese people living in the U.S. took interest in events in China, especially the revolution led by Sun Yat-sen in 1911 that led to the overthrow of the Qing dynasty. The revolution raised expectations of equality for women in China, but the constitution of 1912 excluded women from participation in politics. Chinese women in America remained hopeful that women in China would soon attain the vote.
White suffrage leaders were intrigued with the supposed enfranchisement of women in China, and they sought out Chinese women in several U.S. cities to learn more about the Chinese revolution. A contingent from the New York Chinese community, including 16-year-old Mabel Lee and her parents, met with several well-known white suffragists in 1912. Other Chinese women at the meeting were Grace Yip Typond, a merchant’s wife, and Pearl Mark Loo (Mai Zhouyi), a teacher and missionary who had been detained in horribly squalid conditions in San Francisco’s Pacific Mail Steamship Shed after arriving in the U.S. in 1903. Though the Chinese women were not citizens and would not directly gain from the enfranchisement of American women, they believed in women’s rights, were supporters of education, and hoped that their work for women’s rights might debunk stereotypes and lead to more rights for Chinese in the U.S. The white leaders were so impressed with young Mabel Lee that they asked her to ride in the honor guard of the 1912 parade in New York City. Other Chinese women marched in the parade, carrying a sign that said, “Light from China,” a reversal of the idea that the American culture was superior to that of the Chinese.
Not being a citizen, Mabel Lee was unable to vote when New York state enfranchised women in 1917. She studied at Barnard College and then at Columbia University where she earned a Ph.D. in economics, the first Chinese woman to earn a doctorate in the U.S. She often spoke to white suffragist groups about women’s rights in China, and she worked intensively with Chinese students and as an advocate for girls’ education and the inclusion of women in civic life. She appealed to the future leaders of China to support women’s rights. Dr. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee died in 1966, living to see the Chinese in the U.S. gain the right to pursue citizenship. It is not known if she ever became a citizen or ever voted.
“The key to a country’s prosperity lies in its women’s propensity for learning.” Mai Zhouyi
Democratic Women of Comal County