The First Chinese-American Woman to Vote in the US Fought For Immigrants

Clara Elizabeth Chan Lee, registering to vote at the Alameda County Courthouse in 1911.

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n Nov. 8, 1911, Clara Elizabeth Chan Lee put on her finest hat, went to the southeast corner of Lake Merritt, and entered the imposing facade of the Alameda County Courthouse. By her side was her husband Charles, her friend Emma Tom Leung, and Leung’s husband. Women had won voting rights in California just one month earlier, and now Lee and Leung were about to make history. They were the first Chinese-American women to register to vote in the United States.

After the registration papers were signed under the watchful eye of Assistant County Clerk W. B. Reith, Lee took little time to celebrate. Her work on behalf of Chinese-American women was only just beginning, and her community still had many metaphorical mountains to climb. Still, this was a historic first step—one that seemed impossible just a few years earlier.

At the dawn of the 20th century, women of Asian descent living in the Bay Area faced barriers of both sexism and racism. The former was exacerbated by Chinatown’s ongoing issues with sex trafficking and slavery, which served to impose demeaning stereotypes on Asian women. And the latter was effectively endorsed by the highest echelons of the American government: 1875’s Page Act excluded Chinese women from immigrating to the United States; and 1882’s Chinese Exclusion Act blocked Chinese laborers from entering the country.

Lee’s efforts to raise the stature of Chinese women continued the work of others who came before her. One particularly significant event occurred in 1903, when a teacher named Mai Zhouyi spoke at Chinatown’s Presbyterian Church. Lee was still a teenager at the time.

Zhouyi articulated the experience of many Chinese citizens attempting to immigrate to the United States when she told a congregation of 1,500 men and women—both Asian and white—of the horrors she endured at San Francisco’s wharf. Having traveled from Canton to reunite with her restaurateur husband in New York, Zhouyi was unable to leave the docks for over 40 days. Despite her husband’s stature as a businessman, the local authorities insisted he be classified as a laborer, thereby blocking her entrance.

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Zhouyi was held in an unsanitary two-story shack while her attorneys fought her case in federal court. She was released only after she became too sick to stay in detention. Before leaving for Canada to apply for an American teacher’s visa, and hopefully gain entry to the U.S., she told the Chinatown congregation:

I saw five Chinese ships arrive one after another ... Only we Chinese were not allowed to see or talk to our loved ones ... Even the cargo was picked up from the docks and delivered to its destination ... How can it be that they look upon us as animals? As less than cargo? Do they think we Chinese are not made of flesh and blood? That we don’t have souls?

Zhouyi went on to suggest that only through education and better treatment for girls and women would the Chinese raise their stature in American eyes.

Sisters, don’t say that educating women serves no purpose for home and country ... If the women of today will make the effort to learn ... then, when the time comes, they will be able to educate their children, from whose ranks talented people will surely come ... There is a saying, ‘Wisdom is the root cause of a country’s prosperity.’

T

hese were values that Clara Lee came to embrace wholeheartedly. Less than two years after becoming the first Asian-American woman to register to vote, Lee started Lü-Mei-Zhongguo Nüjie Zilihui—the Chinese Women’s Jeleab (Self-Reliance) Association. The organization saw education as key to acquiring freedom, independence and respect. Its incorporation papers, filed at the State Capitol, declared the group’s purpose as: “social intercourse, benevolent work, educational advantages, and mutual assistance and benefit.”

The association distinguished itself by being staunchly independent, even avoiding any religious affiliation—deeply unusual for clubs of the era. Instead, it modeled itself after the Chinese Native Sons of the Golden State. (While the Native Sons organization prohibited female membership until 1973, it did make its Oakland headquarters available for the Jeleab Association to hold meetings.) Additionally, Lee’s group was not shy about using newspapers to spread its message.

On Sept. 22, 1913, the Jeleab Association published a manifesto of sorts in the Sai Gai Yat Po (Chinese World) newspaper. “How can men ... presume to be superior to women, trampling them underfoot, humiliating them, and making them serve men’s every whim?” it queried. “Before one can be self-reliant, one must have education ... If we women are to become independent, we must form a large group so that we can cull and share ideas and benefit from each other ... Our goal is to cultivate self-reliance in each of us and furthermore, to promote and propagate this concept in China, so as to strip away the black curtain that has blocked women’s view of the sky for thousands of years.”

Education remained a core focus of the group for the entirety of its existence. It offered women classes in literacy (taught by a Baptist minister’s wife named Mrs. T. L. Lee) as well as lessons in American sewing patterns.

On Feb. 8, 1914, after membership had swelled to over 200 women, both immigrants and American-born, the San Francisco Examiner declared the Jeleab Association “The Most Unique Club in America.” The article gave prominent space to Lee as the association’s founding president.

The Chinese Women’s Jeleab Association, as featured in the San Francisco Examiner on Feb. 8, 1914. Clara Lee is pictured in the top left. The headline reads: ‘The Most Unique Club in America, A Club of Chinese Women!’
The Chinese Women’s Jeleab Association, as featured in the San Francisco Examiner on Feb. 8, 1914. Clara Lee is pictured in the top left. The headline reads: ‘The Most Unique Club in America, A Club of Chinese Women!’ (San Francisco Examiner)

Despite its successes, the Chinese Women’s Jeleab Association lasted only a few years; Lee later noted that geographical challenges became an impediment to getting women together for meetings. Its decision to disband did nothing, however, to discourage the women’s ongoing fight for education and independence. Most simply joined other clubs in its place.

Lee herself joined the Chinese YWCA, established in 1916, as well as the Fidelis Coterie, a philanthropic Chinese women’s club. She also became a member of the International Institute, which continues to help “immigrants, refugees, and their families join and contribute to the community” today.

Lee would spend the rest of her life assisting others, performing volunteer work to benefit both women and the Bay Area’s Chinese community. And that was a lot of years of dedication—Clara Lee died in 1993, at the age of 107. Her spirit endures in the generations of women who have continued her legacy: self-reliance over servitude.

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