Mae Yih

One For the History Books

Mae Yih (Barnard College ’51) made history forty-four years ago when she became the first Chinese American elected to a state legislature anywhere in the United States by winning a seat in the Oregon House of Representatives, against a seven-term incumbent.

A Democrat who ran as a fiscal conservative, she was an underdog to say the least. “The newspaper said, ‘Mae Yih’s chance of being elected is like a snowball in July,’ ” she remembers about that first race. Her district, about 75 miles south of Portland, in Albany, was only 0.9 percent Asian at the time. But a quote by Millicent Carey McIntosh (affectionately known as “Mrs. Mac”), Barnard’s dean from 1946 until 1952 (when she became the College’s president) spurred Yih on: “Use your education and be involved in the decision-making process for the benefit of your community.” For more than three decades, Mae Yih has done just that.

Some of Yih’s biggest achievements came from her attention to the public purse: In 1987, she obtained more than $350,000 annually in funding to repair Oregon’s forty-nine covered bridges; in 1990, she spearheaded the Willamette River Scientific Study to analyze the river’s contamination levels, as well as the pollution’s causes and effects, with $1.2 million over eight years that was matched by federal and private dollars; and, from 1997 to 2015, she helped Linn County residents save $90 million total in property taxes after correcting a legislative drafting error that would have raised taxes rather than lower them.

For anyone interested in politics, Yih offers three pieces of advice: Study economics. Say “yes.” And put people first. “That’s why I was elected twenty-six years in the legislature, always with a high majority vote,” she says.

To read the full story, click here.

Mae Yih Barnard College

Barnard College

When it was founded in 1889, Barnard was one of very few American colleges where women could receive the same rigorous and challenging education available to men. The College was named after Frederick A.P. Barnard, then the 10th president of Columbia University, who fought unsuccessfully to admit women to Columbia. Today, Barnard is one of the most selective academic institutions in the country and remains devoted to empowering extraordinary women to become even more exceptional.

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New York, New York