In honor of the 2021 National Women’s History Month theme: “Valiant Women of the Vote: Refusing to Be Silenced,” our Kūkahekahe column shares the mo‘olelo of wāhine aloha ‘āina (patriotic women) who helped achieve women’s suffrage and the restoration of women’s political power in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They include (l-r): Emilie Kekāuluohi Widemann Macfarlane, Elizabeth Kahanu Kalanianaʻole, Emma Metcalf Beckley Nakuina, Abigail Kuaihelani Campbell and children, and Emma ʻAʻima Nāwahī.
In honor of the 2021 National Women’s History Month theme: “Valiant Women of the Vote: Refusing to Be Silenced,” our Kūkahekahe cultural conversations column shares the mo‘olelo of wāhine aloha ‘āina (patriotic women) whose efforts to restore the monarchy and retain the rights of Native Hawaiians became a fight to achieve women’s suffrage and the restoration of women’s political power in the late 1800s and early 1900s. To learn more about these meʻe wāhine, follow Kaʻiwakīloumoku on Instagram and Facebook!
The traumatic shift of power and governance in late 19th century Hawai‘i greatly marginalized the critical role that women played in leadership and daily life. Women had different, even greater rights in many ways under the Hawaiian form of governance. Increased western influences eroded the foundational capacity of Hawaiian women to provide the social and political balance that was central to Hawaiian society. For example, the promulgation of certain laws, such as in the Constitution of 1887 (the Bayonet Constitution) conspicuously excluded the mention of women, then specifically limited rights to certain classes of men in the later years of the kingdom.
The January 17, 1893 overthrow of the monarchy, and the dubious establishment of the Provisional Government in Hawaiʻi resulted in immediate and profound change. Leaders of the “P.G.” barred women from voting in order to diminish the overwhelming power of the native vote. At the time, Native Hawaiians and other non-white men and women formed a large portion of the population and remained loyal to the monarchy. In specifically disenfranchising women and non-white kingdom citizens, the Provisional Government modeled its governance on similar laws in effect in the United States.
However, women in Hawaiian society had long exercised significant political power and were important leaders in the ʻohana, community, and kingdom. Women were monarchs, kuhina nui or regents of the kingdom, landowners, governors, ambassadors, members of the House of Nobles, and kāhuna, skilled specialists in every occupation imaginable. Thus, the absence of voting rights and the explicit right to hold political positions among Native Hawaiian women was not only ironic, but also deeply unjust.
Following the overthrow, prominent women of Hawaiian society used their influence and standing to affect change for the good of the lāhui and were major players in efforts to restore the monarchy and protect Native Hawaiian rights. Ka Hui Hawaiʻi Aloha ʻĀina o Nā Wāhine (The Hawaiian Patriotic League for Women) was founded by Emilie Kekāuluohi Widemann Macfarlane, Abigail Kuaihelani Campbell, and Emma Nāwahī; all were from powerful chiefly families.
They formed the hui leadership and helped to organize the 1897 petition drive that collected over 38,000 signatures protesting the possibility of annexation to the United States. These efforts successfully stopped the advancement of a treaty of annexation in the U.S. Congress in 1898, which led the United States to circumvent its own and international laws to annex Hawaiʻi, with the outbreak of the Spanish and American War as justification.
In the same vein of safeguarding the rights of the lāhui, efforts to restore women’s political power began in these years when Hawaiʻi was made a republic and continued into the territorial years. Robert Wilcox and Prince Kūhiō Kalanianaʻole both introduced unsuccessful bills for women’s suffrage in 1891 and 1915. Women’s suffrage became further entangled in politics when Hawaiʻi became a territory in 1900. The Organic Act created a territorial government which also limited its ability to grant suffrage to any part of the population.
In addition to sexism, American and white racism against Native Hawaiians, Asians, and other nonwhites in Hawaiʻi was the largest obstacle to suffrage. And, as in Guam, the Philippines and Puerto Rico, suffrage for women was further complicated by virtue of Hawaiʻi being claimed as a U.S. territory.
In 1912 the prominent judge and scholar Emma Metcalf Beckley Nakuina and fellow suffragist Wilhemina Widemann Dowsett formed the National Women's Equal Suffrage Association of Hawaii (WESAH), a multi-ethnic coalition that was the first of its kind in Hawaiʻi. Through speeches, petitions, rallies, and countless columns written in Hawaiian and English newspapers, prominent and powerful Hawaiian aliʻi women mobilized their peers and supporters to push for the return of women’s votes in the islands.
Organizers and supporters included many of the most well-known and respected women in the islands: Emma Ahuena Taylor, noted scholar and genealogist, was very active in the suffrage movement. The involvement of so many powerful women in Hawaiian society influenced notable suffragists from the U.S., who in turn introduced a bill in 1918 to Congress that allowed the Territory of Hawaiʻi to hold its own vote for suffrage. In 1919, attempts to pass a suffrage bill in Hawaiʻi were met with resistance, and supporters once again held rallies and drives.
Women’s suffrage in the territory was finally regained in 1920 with the passage of the 19th amendment by the United States government. The first woman to register to vote was Johanna Papakaniau Wilcox. For women, the right to vote represented the beginning, not the end, of the struggle for pono in Hawaiʻi.
E ka ʻohana Kamehameha, when we think about nā poʻe aloha ʻāina, those patriotic individuals who loved their land and their nation, we must remember the incredible women whose political and civic engagement helped to shape and safeguard the rights of our lāhui, and whose legacies still live in each of us today.
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