Clip | Unladylike2020: Unsung Women Who Changed America - She was the first Chinese American woman to vote in the U.S.

Tye Leung Schulze (1887-1972), the youngest daughter of low-income immigrants from China, escaped from domestic servitude at age 9, and an arranged marriage at age 12. She began her career translating for victims of human trafficking in San Francisco’s Chinatown working for Donaldina Cameron’s Presbyterian Mission Home. In 1910, she became the first Chinese American woman to work for the federal government, as assistant matron and interpreter at the Angel Island Immigration Station, a detention center designed to control the flow of Asian immigrants into the U.S. under the Chinese Exclusion Act. While there, she fell in love with a white immigration inspector, Charles Schulze, and married him against both their parents’ wishes and California’s anti-miscegenation laws. In 1912, one year after California granted women the right to vote, Leung Schulze became the first Chinese American woman to vote in a U.S. election.

Interviewees: Julia Flynn Siler, author of The White Devil’s Daughters: The Women Who Fought Slavery; Theodore Schulze, grandson of Tye Leung Schulze; Judge Toko Serita, New York Acting Supreme Court Justice who presides over the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court and the Queens County Criminal Court.

Transcript Print

She was a Chinese American woman who broke boundaries.

Pioneering anti-trafficking activist, who saw social injustice and decided to do something about it.

1912, San Francisco, California.

25-year-old Tye Leung Schulze was hailed as the first Chinese American woman to cast a ballot in a U.S. election.

At that time, women didn't have the right to vote in America. But in 1911, California, very forward-thinking state, gave women the right to vote.

She took it very seriously.

'My first vote? Oh yes, I thought long over that. I studied; I read about all your men who wish to be president.

I think we should not vote blindly, since we have been given this right.'

Tye Leung Schulze was born in 1887, in San Francisco's Chinatown, the youngest of eight children.

Her parents were working-class immigrants from China.

Chinese immigrant men who initially labored on the railroads or in the gold mines, ended up in this very confined ghetto of Chinatown.

Chinese immigrants faced deep racism and widespread violence across the West.

For example, 18 Chinese men were lynched in the early 1870s, and there were fires and widespread violence.

'My father's income was $20 a month working in a shoe shop.

My mother helped at a boarding house.

I would go to gambling houses to get the leftovers from their meals to feed our family.'

Growing up, Leung Schulze attended a mission school where she converted to Christianity and learned English.

At age nine, her parents, following the Chinese custom, essentially sold her as child servant to another family, which was not unusual at that time. Working in households, doing minor tasks like cleaning and then when they came of age they would often end up in the brothels.

By 1890, only about 4% of the Chinese in America were women.

So it was really a huge bachelor's society.

There was a thriving industry of brothels, and majority of girls and women in Chinatown were working as forced prostitutes or sex slaves. Often very, very young.

Sex trafficking is the use of force, fraud or coercion to induce somebody to engage in a commercial sex act without their consent. Some people call it a form of slavery.

The reality of sex trafficking is that it can take place anywhere and it can happen to anybody, even girls as young as 14 or 15 years old.

My name is Toko Serita and I am the first Japanese American judge in state supreme court. I preside over the drug court, mental health court, and the human trafficking intervention court in Queens County, New York.

'This is your decision in terms of what you wish to do.'

What we try to do is provide an alternative to incarceration and provide services and treatment for women and girls who were trafficked.

In 1899, when she was 12 years old, the Leung Schulze was to be married to an older Chinese man in Montana.

It was not unusual for Chinese families to have arranged marriages, to be sent off as a mail-order-bride, and Tye wanted none of that.

'At that time I didn't know what was what. I was still too young.

I refused.'

Leung Schulze ran away to a shelter, run by Donaldina Cameron, a white missionary committed to rescuing Chinatown's women and girls.

Donaldina Cameron was often seen in these brothel raids wielding a fire ax to break down the doors.

And because of my grandma's ability to speak both languages, she was asked to come along on these raids to help interpret and assure the Chinese girls they were rescuing, that it was safe for them to come.

With help from Leung Schulze and other staff, over the course of three decades, Cameron succeeded in rescuing 3,000 Chinese women and girls from trafficking.

When I think about Tye Leung Schulze, I think about the resilience of many of the Asian women I encounter in my court.

Within the past 10 years, there's been real awareness of the need for the courts and also other criminal justice agencies to respond effectively to the issue of human trafficking.

At the height of the arrests in New York City on prostitution and unlicensed massage charges, 40 or 45% of the people in my court were Asian women.

As a result, we were working with a lot of service providers to provide culturally responsive language-specific services for this population.

'Are you nervous? ... A little bit... oh ok.'

And in 2013 New York state decided to create the nation's first, statewide initiative modeled on the Queens court.

And so now we have a total of 12 such anti-trafficking courts.

In 1910, Leung Schulze became the very first Chinese American woman to work for the federal government.

She was hired as an interpreter at the newly opened Angel Island Immigration Station.

Angel Island was, in one sense, a way to enforce the Chinese exclusion act of 1882, which was intended to severely restrict Chinese immigration to the United States, with the idea that the Chinese were taking jobs from white Americans.

It was the first time that a single ethnic group was targeted for exclusion from immigration in the United States.

Angel Island processed tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants under very harsh and sometimes very inhumane conditions, held for weeks or months at a time without due process.

Tye Leung would help screen potential immigrants and particularly keep an eye out for women who were trafficked.

It was a very scary and often intimidating experience.

So my grandmother was really a touch of home, a touch of security.

She really provided a lot of comfort as she interpreted for them during these interrogations.

At Angel Island, Leung Schulze met and fell in love with immigration inspector Charles Schulze.

Here you have this imposing six-foot-three German, and my grandmother, this tiny Chinese lady, four-foot-four, four-foot-five.

What an amazing sight that must have been.

But they had to keep it quiet because there was open prejudice against mixed marriages. It was illegal in the state of California.

In 1913, the couple eloped to Washington state, one of the few in the country where interracial marriage was legal.

'His mother and my folks disapprove very much, but when two people are in love, they don't think of the future or what might happen.'

The marriage cost them their jobs at Angel Island, and both found it difficult to find steady work.

They lived on the outskirts of Chinatown with their four children.

Tye learned how to do bookkeeping and eventually found a nice career as one of the operators at the Chinatown Telephone Exchange.

After World War II with The War Brides Act of 1945, the U.S. Immigration Office hired Leung Schulze again, as an interpreter for the wives of Chinese American servicemen.

The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed during World War II, but more open immigration from China did not occur until passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act.

Tye Leung Schulze was working at a time of extreme anti-immigration sentiments in this country. She quietly fought against it.

And I think we have to look at her as our forebearers - people who saw an environment that was not right, and worked to correct that.

The thing that really inspires me about my grandmother was that she was always a champion of human rights, and of women's rights.

She was really the true definition of a folk hero that did things for the community, without any need for recognition.

And that's really the epitome of being a public servant.

'I spent my life interpreting for people who needed my help. Doctors, attorneys, courts, I learned a lot through experience.

We are all human.'