When angry female civil servants declared war on the government in 1979, one of their leaders was a petite social activist named Ellen Li. Women had already won a hard-fought battle for equal pay in 1975. But in 1979 they were still pressing the government to give them equal status and benefits such as housing, education and family medical care. The public servants could hardly have chosen a better figurehead to gain respect for their cause. Li, who died last week aged 96, had a distinguished career as an effective and early advocate of women's rights and as a political figure. Appointed to the then urban council in 1966, she admitted she used her seat in that largely ineffective body as a soap box to campaign for the Marriage Reform Bill of 1971. Credit for the passage of that hotly contested law was largely given to Li's arguments in the urban council chamber, which of course had no powers to even discuss the issue, let alone pass legislation. Li was a fighter for equality but, strangely for her times, always enjoyed equal standing with men. Born in Vietnam in 1908 and educated in Saigon, Hong Kong and Shanghai, her father gave her the same opportunities as her brothers. In an era when girls in wealthy families were seldom seen outside the home, young Ellen learned to ride a horse and a bicycle and even to shoot. She attended a convent run by Cantonese nuns but her father was determined she learn Putonghua. So he sent her to a boys' school. Nobody objected; her father had founded the school. In Hong Kong, she attended St Stephen's Girls School but it was to Shanghai that she went for university, studying business administration. After graduation she returned to Hong Kong and married doctor Li Shu-pui. She wanted to work but because they did not need the money she made a career of working for good causes. Li was not a lady who gave up fighting for her causes. So although the law about monogamous marriages was passed in 1971, she complained that in many Hong Kong families boys still got preference in matters like education. Her stature brought her much recognition. She served on the urban council for five years. In 1965 she was appointed to the Legislative Council, where she remained until 1974. In recognition of her many years of service, she was awarded the MBE and OBE and was the first Hong Kong woman to receive the Commander of the British Empire medal. She was for years head of the Family Planning Association and at a time when many poor families had too many children to feed or educate, Li called for strong government policies to support smaller families. Li is survived by three children, Maxine, Wyman and Walton, and eight grandchildren. Her husband, Li Shu-pui, 102, is still active as superintendent of the Hong Kong Sanatorium and Hospital.