Our Sisters in China Are Free: Mabel Ping-Hua Lee

Bringing our celebration of Women’s History Month on the UNC Press Blog to a close, the following excerpt is taken from Recasting the Vote: How Women of Color Transformed the Suffrage Movement by Cathleen D. Cahill

The shadows were just starting to slide across New York’s Washington Square Park on the evening of May 5, 1912, when a company of fifty women on horseback trotted smartly around the east side of the park’s triumphal arch. Their arrival was the signal that the great suffrage procession, the largest in the nation’s history, had begun. They led the parade of 17,000 women up Fifth Avenue. On their heads they wore tricornered hats reminiscent of the American Revolution topped with knots of purple, green, and white ribbons, the colors of Harriet Stanton Blatch’s Women’s Political Union. The women in the cavalcade represented the finest of New York society as well as prominent suffrage activists.

Among them was Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, the Chinese suffragist whose presence had been much anticipated in the papers for weeks beforehand. Lee’s appearance at the front of the parade was not an accident. Organizers had invited her to be there to remind viewers of the recent revolution in China and the enfranchisement of women that they believed it had inaugurated. Lee herself was pleased with the opportunity to draw the United States’ attention to events in China, as she hoped to challenge Americans’ stereotypes about the backwardness of her nation.

In the United States, 1912 became the year of the Chinese suffragist. Americans closely watched the unfolding of the Chinese Revolution, focusing on the participation of Chinese women and the women’s rights being championed by the republican revolutionaries under Dr. Sun Yat-sen. White suffragists seized upon these news stories to support their cause by using them to shame American men. They looked for Chinese women living in the United States who could tell them more about events in China. Those women, some American-born but most of them immigrants barred from naturalized citizenship, drew on transpacific conversations to educate their white sisters about the women’s movement in China. Having captured their attention, Chinese women used the opportunity to raise their concerns about the United States’ policies toward China. As a result, Chinese and Chinese American women were unexpectedly visible in American suffrage debates and events.

During the fall of 1911 and into 1912, Sun Yat-sen’s Tongmenghui, or Revolutionary Alliance, battled the Quing Empire, overthrew that 268-year-old dynasty, and established the Chinese republic. Chinese women, especially students, had been early supporters of the Revolutionary Alliance. They worked in underground revolutionary networks, recruiting other students, writing powerful articles and manifestos, carrying secret messages, and serving as spies. Many of them were attracted by Sun and the Alliance’s emphasis on women’s rights. When open conflict broke out, they raised money and provided medical assistance for the troops, and one woman, Tang Qunying, even formed a military organization called the Women’s Northern Attack Brigade with two of her friends. During the Wuchang Uprising, Tang led the famous “women’s army” into battle, helping capture Nanking (Nanjing). Americans were astonished to see pictures of these “Chinese amazons” under resounding headlines like “The Chinaman’s Better Half? Wideawake Woman Is Encouraging the Rebellion against the Manchus.”

These Chinese women were elated when Sun Yat-sen became provisional president of the new nation at the beginning of 1912. He had long supported women’s rights and had promised them suffrage as soon as the revolution succeeded. In February, Chinese suffragists, including Tang Qunying, had two meetings with Sun in Nanking. They presented him with funds they had raised for the new nation and inquired about his promises. They reminded him of their service to the nation as soldiers, mothers, and citizens. He graciously accepted the money but avoided making a strong statement in favor of immediate suffrage. It was an important matter, he agreed, but out of his hands. He urged the women to qualify themselves for the vote by educating themselves as to the government and laws. When women were ready, he had no doubt that they would be given the vote. His acknowledgment of the importance of woman suffrage and his assurances that it would be granted went out across the world. The Salt Lake Tribune, for example, reported “Chinese President Plans Reforms: Women Want Electoral Franchise.” Chinese women were optimistic.

White suffragists in the United States closely followed the news from China. Rumors that Chinese women had been enfranchised reached New York on a blustery March day in 1912. A number of the city’s women were gathered at the Women’s Industrial Exhibition at the Beaux Arts–inspired New Grand Central Palace, which for the next half a century would serve as the city’s main exhibition hall. In the expansive showrooms on the second and third floors, attendees were marveling at the latest products for the modern woman. Electric vacuums and other labor-saving devices for housewives sat next to displays announcing fashionable hairstyles, fancy perfumes, and luscious looking cosmetics, which only recently had been deemed acceptable for respectable women. Local suffragists had set up shop in the hall, insisting that the vote was also an essential feature of modern womanhood. They outfitted their booth with bold posters designed to attract the passing crowds to the table, where women pressed pamphlets into their hands and urged them to buy suffrage buttons.

In the midst of the expo, rumors that Chinese women had won the right to vote flashed over the wires. Florence Ivins, a suffrage booth volunteer whose husband would soon become a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and who thus may have known a thing or two about displays, seized the moment. She quickly made up a poster declaring “The People of China Have Enfranchised Their Women” and hung it to be seen by all. Crowds surged to the table, and the suffragists did a brisk business in buttons—even, they claimed, to some anti-suffragists. They attributed the crowds’ run on their booth to the “indignation felt by American women” who felt poorly treated in comparison. Indeed, the white suffragists themselves were “glad, but irritated, too,” by the news.

Cathleen D. Cahill is associate professor of history at Penn State University and the author of Federal Fathers and Mothers: A Social History of the United States Indian Service, 1869–1933, winner of the 2011 Labriola Center American Indian National Book Award and finalist for the 2012 David J. Weber-Clements Prize, Western History Association.