August 26, 1920 was a monumental day: the day the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was certified. While this was an important step in the right direction, it wasn’t as if some magical switch flipped overnight. Women continued to fight for the right to vote for many decades to come. More than 60 years elapsed before the final state (Mississippi) ratified the amendment. In addition, immigrants, indigenous women, and women of color were not explicitly included or protected in this amendment. Their fight for suffrage continued for decades.
Activists in the BIPOC community are often overlooked in conversations about the women’s suffrage movement. They played crucial roles in this era and deserve to be honored for their diligent efforts.
Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, a Chinese immigrant, helped lead a women’s suffrage march in New York City in 1912 (at just 16 years old). While attending college, she wrote articles and gave speeches about the importance and value of extending the right to vote to women. After finishing her master’s degree, she became the first Chinese woman to earn a PhD in economics. When the 19th Amendment was certified, Chinese immigrants were not permitted to obtain U.S. citizenship, and they therefore could not vote. Mabel continued to be a voice for women’s rights. The New York Times regarded her as “the symbol of the new era, when all women will be free and unhampered.” While it is unknown if Mabel was able to vote before she passed away in 1966, it is certain that her efforts contributed towards many, many other women exercising their right to do so.
Racism was a difficult roadblock for women’s suffrage. Many Black women created their own organizations after being weeded out of mainstream (read: white) groups. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper wasn’t afraid to call white suffragists out for their racism. She was one of the first African-American women to become a published author. She was a prominent orator and author, and she donated many proceeds from her books to the Underground Railroad. At the 1866 National Women’s Right Convention, she confronted the white women for their lack of solidarity for women of color. Frances is a strong example of someone who is brave enough to hold leaders accountable.