One for the History Books

In 1976, Mae Yih ’51 became the first Chinese American elected to a state legislature anywhere in the United States

By N. Jamiyla Chisholm

Call this the “Year of the Woman,” with 476 women candidates applying in 2018 to run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives alone. National Public Radio has termed it a “wave.” The New York Times, a "surge.” But pushing for political power is nothing new to Mae Yih ’51, who made history forty-two years ago when she became the first Chinese American elected to a state legislature anywhere in the United States by winning a seat in the Oregon House of Representatives, against a seven-term incumbent.

A Democrat who ran as a fiscal conservative, she was an underdog to say the least. “The newspaper said, ‘Mae Yih’s chance of being elected is like a snowball in July,’ ” she remembers about that first race. Her district, about 75 miles south of Portland, in Albany, was only 0.9 percent Asian at the time. But a quote by Millicent Carey McIntosh (affectionately known as “Mrs. Mac”), Barnard’s dean from 1946 until 1952 (when she became the College’s president) spurred Yih on: “Use your education and be involved in the decision-making process for the benefit of your community.” For more than three decades, Mae Yih has done just that.

Life in the Republic

Born in Shanghai in 1928 to a family she describes as well-to-do, Yih, then known as Chih Feng Dunn, led a privileged life growing up. She was chauffeured daily to a private school and took horseback-riding lessons from a former Russian colonel.

But the China Yih grew up in was full of extremes. There was the Second Sino-Japanese War, World War II, and Chiang Kai-shek’s dictatorship. “The poor lived in huts and used manure for heating and cooking fuel,” she remembers. On the way to school, Yih passed frozen bodies wrapped in straw mats along the road “because people lacked burial money.” She recalls beggars and prostitutes on street corners, and how one of her two older brothers was kidnapped once and her father three times.

Despite the abductions and the looming Communist Revolution, Yih’s trip to America, which ultimately springboarded her into history, wasn’t a planned escape. Her mother simply wanted to visit Yih’s brothers, who were studying in New York; Yih came along to translate. Unbeknownst to her, she would never live in China again.

Coming to America

Aboard the 600-foot luxury ocean liner that nineteen-year-old Yih, her mother, and aunt took to San Francisco in January 1948 was a Columbia University graduate who knew her father. “One day, he said, ‘Mae, when you are in New York, you’ve got to go to school at Barnard. It’s a good women’s college.’ So, I said, ‘Okay.’” Yih was at Barnard when the Chinese Revolution began, 7,400 miles away.

“After living through the corruption in China, I thought America was so free,” Yih says. She also thought her stay was temporary and planned to take what she had learned as an economics and accounting major back to Shanghai to work as her father’s personal accountant. But while Yih adjusted to campus life, the Communist Party jailed her father for five years for the crime of being a capitalist. As school terms ticked by, financial support from her family dwindled, then ceased. She had no money for passage back to Shanghai; Yih was stuck in America. Barnard literally became her new home.

Growing up Barnard

Columbia’s then-president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, later to become president of the United States, gave scholarships to financially strapped Chinese students, enabling Yih to stay. “I finished the last year of Barnard with Eisenhower’s scholarship. So, I feel indebted to the American government,” she says.

Yih's scrapbook

And to Dean McIntosh, who punctuated weekly student assemblies with her inspiring quote. “If it wasn’t for her message, I wouldn’t have become involved in schools and then in the legislature,” Yih muses.

Decades later, when Yih published her memoir, East Meets West, she donated its proceeds to the College. “I wanted to pay tribute to the place that inspired my journey into public service,” she says, drawing a direct connection between her Barnard years and her making of history. It was as simple as her understanding Dean McIntosh’s call and saying “yes.”

Beyond the Gates

Three years after Yih married her husband, Stephen, at Riverside Church in 1953, the young couple moved to Albany, Oregon. They had two boys. And what eventually became her twenty-six-year career in the Oregon legislature began, mundanely enough, with her fulfilling any request that her children’s teachers made. (Cookies? Yes! Field trip? Yes! Hot lunch program coordinator? Yes!) “I remembered Dean McIntosh’s words and they would inspire me to be involved,” Yih recalls.

When she was asked to survey a school board meeting to gauge her interest in running for a vacant seat, she hesitated but went because of McIntosh’s inspiration. “They spent an hour on which lawnmower the school should buy but five minutes dismissing a teacher who I thought was the best in the school,” she remembers. “I went for the position because I was mad. And I won.” Yih served on Albany’s school boards for a total of thirteen years.

Her fearlessness around controversy caught the attention of the Linn County Democratic Party chairman who recruited Yih to run for the Oregon House of Representatives. Again, reluctantly, Yih said yes, and won. “Going door-to-door really was the key,” she said. Being a fiscally conservative Democrat gave the Albany resident unique insights into managing both government budgets and the needs of the public. “I thank economics Professor [Elizabeth F.] Baker for telling me to study economics, and later accounting, because that was a perfect background for when I served in government.” Her background sometimes put her at odds with her fellow Democrats. “If I always did what the caucus wanted, I may have been doing opposite of what people wanted,” Yih explains.

Nonetheless, some of Yih’s biggest achievements came from her attention to the public purse: In 1987, she obtained more than $350,000 annually in funding to repair Oregon’s forty-nine covered bridges; in 1990, she spearheaded the Willamette River Scientific Study to analyze the river’s contamination levels, as well as the pollution’s causes and effects, with $1.2 million over eight years that was matched by federal and private dollars; and, from 1997 to 2015, she helped Linn County residents save $90 million total in property taxes after correcting a legislative drafting error that would have raised taxes rather than lower them.

Yih memorabilia

Balancing government budgets and her life as a devoted wife and mother came easily to Yih, who offers this advice to working moms: “If you are well organized, you can handle the household, do community work, and your job at the same time. And, don’t be afraid to put the kids to work.”

Paying Forward

In 1983, Yih became a state senator, eventually retiring in 2003. Still, the new nonagenarian remains very busy. Every year, Yih honors her late husband by sponsoring several awards, including one for an essay contest on the subject of specialty metals. (Stephen Yih, a metals expert, ran the Wah Chang metals refinery plant in Albany that produced zirconium for the U.S. Navy’s nuclear submarine program.) “I give $1,500 to the essay winner, a $5,000 scholarship in memory of Stephen, and a scholarship to a school in China that was founded by Stephen’s great-grandfather,” Yih says. “The student has to be needy, a science major, and have a high academic average.”

For anyone interested in politics, Yih offers three pieces of advice: Study economics. Say “yes.” And put people first. “That’s why I was elected twenty-six years in the legislature, always with a high majority vote,” she says.

No doubt, Mrs. Mac would have been very proud.

— Photos by Toni Greaves

Latest IssueSpring 2023