Written by Laura Li
Dear Mabel Ping-Hua Lee,
I never learned about you growing up. In my lowest moments, when I think people’s minds and hearts are closed, I think of you as my ancestor who fought for me. Your fight for women’s suffrage embodies what Grace Lee Boggs taught us decades later: we are the leaders we’ve been looking for. I am writing you this letter that your legacy lives on.
At the tender age of 16, you were organizing for women’s suffrage in New York in 1912. Despite not having the right to vote, you hit the streets. You saw an injustice and took action by leading Chinese and Chinese American women in pro-suffrage campaigns and protests. You shattered societal expectations for us. As a daughter of Chinese working class immigrants, I know what it means to rebel. I had spent my life watching the constant racism and classism my parents endured for tripping over English, for being uneducated restaurant workers, for just simply being Chinese. I swallowed my parents pain until I couldn’t swallow it anymore.
So, I worked in the federal government, non-profits, and on Capitol Hill because I wanted to serve the people as a “public servant.” But after years of being the “token Asian woman” and hearing empty promises from political staffers, bureaucrats and politicians, I wanted to burn the system to the ground. I turned to community organizing to imagine new ways of being.
In 1917 the state of New York finally approved white women’s right to vote, and it was because of your organizing. You kept pushing, building power through your campaign to reach male voters in New York City. Despite all these wins, Black women and other women of color still could not vote. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 made sure that Chinese people in the U.S. would be barred from becoming citizens until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, seventy years later.
Racism and patriarchy prevented Black women and other women of color from becoming full citizens and voting for decades. Yet, you and other Chinese American suffragists still decided to advocate for women’s voting rights because you were organizing for long term change. The tactic was getting the right to vote, the strategy was building power. There is no ethical participation in a system designed to harm our communities. Organizing for change means building relationships, changing hearts and minds, and fighting for our values.
I’ve been organizing Asian Americans locally and across the U.S. for the past ten years. One of the most important things I’ve learned from this work is that progress is non-linear. For every person I’ve raised funds to free from ICE detention, there are still entire communities that fear ICE raids. For every person I’ve turned out to a protest, there are always thousands more to reach. We’re changing a system that will resist us at all costs. Now with these historic uprisings led by Black organizers, a future built by us, for us is in reach. This starts with making sure our right to vote is not only protected, but expanded. But, it doesn’t end there.
The election of a lifetime is this November. We are battling racist Voter ID laws, voter roll purges, voting site shut downs, and ballots intentionally mailed late or “lost”. These all specifically target Black and Brown folks. Still, our communities are organizing and fighting back, just like our ancestors have for centuries.
You passed away in 1966 and I don’t know if you were ever able to vote in the U.S., but I do know that this year I will be voting in memory of you. You have taught me that by standing up for my community and speaking the truth, I am breaking cycles of trauma in more ways than one. Election Day is only one moment in the timeline of our collective liberation. Like you, I’m fighting for more than participation in the voting process. Like you, I’m building a future that includes us.
Laura is an organizer and digital campaigner based in the Washington D.C. area (occupied Anacostan and Piscataway land). She is a member of Asian Pacific Islander Resistance, a multiethnic and multiracial collective of radical left Asians and Pacific Islanders engaged in organizing, healing, art and community building. Laura holds a B.A. in Politics from Oberlin College and is a Fulbright recipient where she was based in Curitiba, Brazil.