Mortarboard photo of Mabel Lee, Class of 1916, courtesy of Barnard Archives and Special Collections

In the early evening of May 4, 1912, as shadows fell across Washington Square Park, 16-year-old Mabel Ping-Hua Lee rode her white horse to the front of the honor guard leading 10,000 marchers in the suffrage parade up New York City’s Fifth Avenue. More than a century later, in 2020, Lee’s brave and unexpected act was featured in The New York Times’ series, “Overlooked No More.”

It’s worth revisiting Lee’s story in 2024, considering the multiple-Tony-nominated Broadway musical Suffs on Broadway, which is expected to take a trophy home when the awards are handed out next Sunday, June 16. The theatrical hit centers the activism of various suffragists from the late 1910s and onward, yet overlooks the 16-year-old, white-horse-riding Lee. Instead, it’s 27-year-old Inez Milholland — who rode a white horse in Washington, D.C., in 1913, one year after Lee — whose story is told on stage. 

Activists on horseback at the "Suffragette parade" in NYC, on May 4, 1912, taken by Bain News Service. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

At the time of Lee’s NYC protest, she was a student at Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn and had just been accepted to Barnard. The 1912 parade was only the beginning of her career as an activist fighting for women’s suffrage and gender equality. Despite Lee’s activism and U.S. women winning the right to vote in 1920, the Barnard graduate was prohibited from casting a ballot until 1943, when the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which prevented Chinese immigrants from becoming U.S. citizens, was repealed. 

Motarboard featuring six different photos of women
Lee, the year she graduated: Top row, right

On Barnard’s campus, Lee joined the debate club and what was then known as the Barnard/Columbia Chinese Students’ Association, where she combined women’s activism with discussions about the political frontier in China.

Lee went on to earn a Ph.D. in economics at Columbia University, becoming the first Chinese woman in the country to do so. In 1921, she published her research in a book, The Economic History of China. Following her father’s death, Lee took over his mission, becoming director of the First Chinese Baptist Church. She also founded the Chinese Christian Center —  offering a health clinic, a kindergarten, vocational training, and English classes — which she led until her death in 1966.

Photos from the 2018 USPS dedication

Dr Mabel Lee Post Office Dedication - 2018

In 2018, the United States Postal Service officially renamed Manhattan’s Chinatown Post Office as the Mabel Lee Memorial Post Office. Legislation was introduced in the House of Representatives by U.S. Representative Nydia Velázquez and was signed into law by the president, resulting in the historic designation of the 6 Doyers Street location.  

“At a time when women were widely expected to spend a life in the home, Lee shattered one glass ceiling after another,” said Representative Velázquez in a statement, several months prior to the dedication ceremony. “From speaking out in the classroom to organizing Chinese-American women to secure the right to vote, Lee’s bold vision for Chinatown is very much alive in our community today.”  

Barnard's senior associate dean of studies, Christina Kuan Tsu, also delivered remarks at the dedication ceremony. “We are exceedingly proud of Mabel Lee who, like so many other Barnard women, who blazed a trail that changed the world and benefited others,” said Kuan Tsu. “She was fearless and selfless in her efforts as a suffragette, advocating for women’s voting rights even though those very rights would exclude her as a Chinese immigrant. She understood that equality of opportunity was essential, and that someday that opportunity would extend to the Chinese-American community, as well.” 

Indeed, with a musical about women fighting for the right to vote and a recent series of articles published about Lee’s legacy — from Columbia’s Teachers College to the Washington Post — as well as the upcoming presidential election, her activism feels ever present and long lasting. 

“We all believe in the idea of democracy,” wrote Lee in her 1914 essay “The Meaning of Woman Suffrage.” “Woman suffrage or the feminist movement … is the application of democracy to women.” 

A version of this article was originally published in Barnard Magazine Fall 2020 issue, titled "Mabel Ping-Hua Lee ’1916: A Pioneer of the Suffrage Movement," by Lois Elfman ’80.