Tye Leung Schulze was the first Chinese American woman to vote in the United States and became the first Chinese woman to be employed by the federal government.
Early life: Leung was born in San Francisco’s Chinatown on Aug. 24, 1887 to a large family consisting of seven siblings, an elderly aunt and an uncle, and her parents, according to the National Park Service.
- She grew up in an era where local students were segregated and Chinese American students were forced to study at a separate school.
- Leung, who was only 12 or 14 at the time, was forced to take her sister’s place in an arranged marriage with a much older man in Montana after her sister ran away with her boyfriend in 1899.
- Leung later also ran away and took refuge at the Presbyterian Mission where she was taken in under the tutelage of Donaldina Cameron, a teacher and local activist.
- A star pupil in Cameron’s class, Leung began working for the Presbyterian Mission as a translator and interpreter to free Chinese women who were victims of sex slavery.
Making history: Leung passed the civil service exam in 1910 and was later assigned to the Angel Island Immigration Station, a center that was designed to control the flow of Chinese immigrants into the U.S. that was under the Chinese Exclusion Act, PBS reported. The test determines a person’s eligibility to work at the civil, state and federal government levels.
- She made headlines in 1912 when she became the first Chinese American woman to vote in a presidential election.
- “My first vote? – Oh, yes, I thought long over that. I studied; I read about all your men who wished to be president,” she said. “I learned about the new laws. I wanted to KNOW what was right, not to act blindly…I think it right we should all try to learn, not vote blindly, since we have been given this right to say which man we think is the greatest.”
- Leung met Charles Schulze, who would soon later become her husband, during her tenure at the Angel Island.
- However, Leung and Schulze were not allowed to get married under the anti-miscegenation laws criminalizing interracial marriages in 1913. The couple traveled to Washington State where interracial marriages of White and Asian people were allowed by law.
- Unfortunately, after they returned to California, both Leung and Schulze were forced to leave their job.
Continuing a life of service: Following their job loss, the two continued living in California and worked in different fields.
- After Schulze’s death in 1935, Leung went on to raise their four children alone while working as a bookkeeper with the San Francisco Chinese Hospital and later with the Pacific Telephone’s Chinatown exchange as a night-shift operator.
- She provided translation services to the Chinese community in San Francisco, and after WWII and the War Brides Act in 1945, she was hired by the U.S. Immigration Office to be an interpreter for the wives of Chinese American servicemen.
- Leung continued her work as a community advocate in later years and was arrested for allegedly driving women to abortion clinics at 61, but charges against her were dropped in December 1948 after a trial and investigation.
- She passed away in March 1972 in San Francisco.
Leung was a trailblazer for Asian American women in connecting Chinese people to American culture and serves as a reminder that voting and human and women’s rights matter.
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