Chinese American Woman Suffrage in 1912 Portland

In 1870 Oregon suffragists began the arduous fight for the vote; in 1912 Oregon woman achieved suffrage, and in 1920 the Nineteenth Amendment was passed, which allowed most U.S. women to vote and hold office. There were similar woman suffrage movements occurring all over the world in places such as New Zealand, England, and China. While all were equally important, the movement in China was of specific interest for Chinese American and American woman suffrage groups in Portland, Oregon. For example, on April 12, 1912 the Oregon Journal reported that “side by side with their Caucasian sisters, seven Portland Chinese women sat at a banquet… the feast was attended by 150 equal suffrage workers,” which was unheard of at the time. Therefore, suffrage became a goal that was shared by women across racial and national boundaries. 

In Portland, transnational groups were established by members of the community such as Mrs. S. K. Chan, who was not only a physician, but also the president of a local equal suffrage society for Chinese women in Oregon. While much of their work is currently unknown, it is clear that Oregon suffragists were affiliated with Chinese American women’s groups located in the Portland area. Therefore by affiliation, Oregon suffragists also pledged their support for the woman suffrage movement simultaneously occurring in China.

Today, both groups are considered marginalized populations, therefore their stories have either not been acknowledged, or have been misinterpreted. While the Oregon woman suffrage story fits within the politically democratic landscape in the United States and is honored on occasion, the Chinese woman suffrage story is not given the full appreciation or even the correct interpretation.

Newspaper accounts suggest that, for a time during the 1912 campaign, white Oregon suffragists saw Chinese women as sisters in the battle for equal suffrage and gave them their complete support. However, despite this camaraderie, the actual Chinese woman suffrage story has been altered within the Chinese historical record and also in Oregon history. It is important to consider the history of woman suffrage in China and how it relates to the suffrage story in Oregon.

In China in 1911, when the Qing monarchy was dissolved and the Republic of China was established, many Chinese women assumed that the new democracy meant the empowerment of all citizens. But to their surprise, the Constitution of 1912 excluded women from political participation. Thus, as Louise Edwards demonstrates, Chinese suffragists began campaigning for the “reassert [ion] [of] their ‘natural rights’ to equality and liberty as human beings.”

During the 1912 votes for women campaign in Oregon, many activists believed that Chinese women would soon achieve the vote. Oregon woman suffragists were optimistic about the Chinese woman suffrage movement, but that did not mean that they received or reported an accurate representation of the Chinese suffrage story. In Oregon, supporters of woman suffrage approached the Chinese movement two ways; one was characterized by racism, and the other by a vision of equality.

On September 27, 1912 the Oregon Journal had published an article documenting a speech given by Dr. C. F. Aked titled, “Scores Men for Denying Women Right of Ballot.” The Reverend Aked, visiting from Great Britain, used this opportunity to express his discontent with the United States’ current treatment of women. He began his speech with an abrasive tone stating that, “The stupidity of the circumstance which gives votes to men of whatever class, and denies the right of franchise to women, has grown so intolerable.” Aked then stated, “You Americans, except in six states of the union… place her [woman] below the Chinamen, Greeks, and negroes in the matter of political suffrage… because the American is apparently content to sit idly by in this matter.” While he supported woman suffrage, Aked clearly believed that only white women of the United States should be granted the right to vote before the women of “other countries less favored.” Aked utilized the suffrage movement as a way to show Americans how inconceivable it was to not give white women the vote, and he also attempted to place guilt upon the educated American man for enfranchising men of other races, while not granting the vote to women of their own race.

From the other perspective, woman suffrage groups in Oregon perceived the Chinese suffrage movement as a step towards complete equality for all women, not just Americans or Caucasians. Oregon suffragists had high hopes for China and saw that nation as an inspiration. Mrs. S. K. Chan stated at a suffrage banquet “We Chinese women have much to be thankful for towards our American neighbors… But we have taken one step ahead of you… while you are yet trying to convince your men of this right… the Chinese have shown themselves more progressive.” Through this lens, the Chinese movement was presented in a positive light, something that fit the Oregon women’s grand narrative of democratic values and progressive ideas regarding women’s rights. 

For women in Oregon in 1912 the Chinese movement proved that it was possible to achieve suffrage, and Oregon was behind China in this regard.  At the same banquet, Mrs. S. K. Chan also stated, “Oregon is now bounded on four sides by states that have recognized the rights of women. On the north there is Washington, on the east there is Idaho, on the south there is California, and far away, across the waters on the west, there is China. I hope the time is not far off when Oregon herself will take her place among them.” By using China as the prime example, Chinese American women along side their American sisters formed a bond with their international counterparts, and mutually expressed high hopes for the future. For example, Mrs. Chan stated regarding the American and Chinese relationship, “You [America] sent your missionaries to our country [China] and they told us about the destiny and the equality of men and held up before us the highest of ideals.” Thus, not only did she maintain a strong tie with her home country, but she also felt a strong connection with America by supporting her other sisters, the white Oregon suffragists. Mrs. Chan was empowered by her dual identity and embraced it for the betterment of the Chinese and Oregon movements.

On March 22, 1912, the Oregonian printed an article stating that “Suffrage Has Won,” in the new Republic of China. However, national suffrage was not officially won in China until 1947. It is possible that supporters of Chinese suffrage saw the abdication of the last Qing ruler, Hsuan Tung, on February 12, 1912, as a precursor for national suffrage. The campaign committee of the Portland Woman’s Club also sent a message after hearing the news to Moy Back Hin, the Chinese consul in Oregon, which stated, “Through you we send greetings and congratulations to the great republic of China, that, in establishing the most modern form of government, it has made the republic a government of all the people, and not a government of half the people, as we have on Oregon.” Therefore, by comparing Oregon’s democracy, with China’s newfound democracy, they perceived China’s struggles and gains as their very own.

Anti-suffragists printed a rebuttal addressed to the editor of the Oregonian titled, “Chinese Women are not Voters,” on July 4, 1912. The premise of the article was to point out the inaccuracy of certain statements used by the Equal Suffrage Association. They argued that suffragists were misusing the slogan, “Women, Keep Up With China,” because in reality, China had not yet achieved woman suffrage. By July 1912, China had no intention of granting equal rights to women and the Chinese Assembly postponed the vote until a “future date.” While the anti-suffragist point of view was clearly biased, it was a valid point to question the motives of Oregon suffragists and their support for Chinese women. “[Are] the women of this association [Equal Suffrage Association of Portland] really justified in using this erroneous statement as a means toward their end?” they asked. Whether or not Oregon suffragists, including Chinese American groups, knew this fact, they consciously decided to utilize the Chinese movement for their own gain.

The Oregon suffragists who were working on the 1912 campaign saw the democratic movement as progressive and inspiring. Not only did it physically bring white Americans and the Chinese American women suffragists together, but it also created an ideological bond across racial and international lines. No longer was the movement about achieving the vote for only white women, it had transformed into a movement for all women. Without the diversity and cooperation among suffrage groups, the 1912 campaign would not have been as successful. 

Primary Sources:

“Chinese Dine with White,” Oregonian, April 12, 1912, 16.

“Chinese Women Are Not Voters,” Oregonian, July 4, 1912, 6.

“College Equal Suffragists, Chinese Women Dine Together Celestial Speaker Thanks Her American Sisters Heartily,” Oregon Journal, April 12, 1912, 6.

“Scores Men For Denying Women Right of Ballot,” Oregon Journal, September 27, 1912, 3.

“Suffrage Has Won,” Oregonian, March 22, 1912, 5.

Secondary Sources

Edwards, Louise. “Women’s Suffrage in China: Challenging Scholarly Conventions.” Pacific Historical Review, 69 no. 4 (2000): 617-738.

Edwards, Louise. “Coopting The Chinese Women’s Suffrage Movement for the Fifth Modernisation-Democracy.” Asian Studies Review, 26 no. 3 (2002): 285-307.

About The Author

As a student in the Honors Program at Western Oregon University, Diedra Cates participated in Professor Kimberly Jensen’s Winter 2011 Oregon Woman Suffrage course. Diedra is also an Anthropology major with interests in gender and cultural studies, transnational adoption, and self-identity formation. She plans on completing her bachelor degree and then applying to graduate school and/or the Peace Corps.