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Mahina Nā Mana Wāhine

Updated: Mar 10, 2023

Hawaiian Women in History and Their Contributions

Womenʻs Empowerment Month Celebration

March marks Women’s History Month, the internationally recognized celebration of the equity and rights of women across the world. In the United States, federal recognition of the struggle for women’s rights is relatively recent, with the first Women’s History Week only being declared by Presidential Proclamation in 1980. However, ma ka Hawaiʻi pae ʻāina, nā wāhine (women) have always played a major role in families, political dynasties, and society as a whole. Nā wāhine have made enormous contributions to the religion, politics, health, education, and culture, and their impacts continue to reverberate.

From Left to right: Queen Emma Kalanikaumakaʻamano Kaleleonālani Naʻea Rooke, Queen Kapiʻolani Napelakapuokakaʻe, Queen Liliʻuokalani (Lydia Liliʻu Loloku Walania Kamakaʻeha), Princess Kaʻiulani (Victoria Kawēkiu Kaʻiulani Lunalilo Kalaninuiahilapalapa Cleghorn)

Hawaiʻi i ka wā kahiko: Old Hawaiʻi

This is well-demonstrated by so many aliʻi wahine who have led the way in advocating for the rights, health, and well-being o ka lāhui. In fact, many aliʻi derive the mana from their moʻokūʻauhau through their female relationships, lineage, and ancestors. A well-known example is that of Kamehameha Nui, who sought out his wife, Keōpūolani, for her ancestral ties to the moʻowahine, Kīhāwahine. So revered was her lineage that people prostrated in her presence, in observance of the kapu moe. This was not done out of fear, as commonly misconceived. Rather, this was done out of respect for what she represented— the physical embodiment of generations of ancestors and their power, intellect, and prestige.

Queen Emma and Her Legacy

In her early life, Emma was raised on the island of Oʻahu and attended Hale Kula Aliʻi, Chief’s Children School, which was established by King Kamehameha III, Kauikeaouli. She was educated alongside other aliʻi children, such as Bernice Pauahi Pākī, Alexander Liholiho (her future husband, King Kamehameha IV), David Kalākaua (who would become King Kalākaua), and Lydia Liliʻu Pākī (who would become Queen Liliʻuokalani). They were all being cultivated to become future leaders and ruling monarchs in Hawaiʻi.

In 1859, Queen Emma, during the reign of her husband Alexander Liholiho, Kamehameha IV, helped privately raise funds to open the Queen’s Hospital, a hospital devoted to meeting the medical needs of Native Hawaiians. The lāhui had been decimated by foreign diseases in the century that had passed since foreigners began flooding Hawaiian ports. Syphilis, yellow fever, measles, and leprosy had ravaged and continued to threaten the very survival of the lāhui. By the time of the establishment of the Queen’s Hospital, only a quarter of the Native Hawaiian remained since initial colonial contact. Her hospital continues to serve Native Hawaiians and all people in Hawaiʻi to this day, and is now known as the Queen’s Medical Center.

Left: King Kamehameha IV, Alexander Liholiho; Right: Prince Albert Edward

Tragedy would soon strike with two massive blows. Prince Albert died in 1862 at the age of four, from what many believe to be appendicitis, just following his christening into the Anglican Faith with Holy Water gifted by his Godmother, Queen Victoria. A year later, perhaps weakened from from his government duties whilst grieving the passing of his only child, King Alexander Liholiho, would meet his own end at the age of 29 from an asthma attack. This left Emma alone as Queen Dowager at the age of 27. When her son passed, she gained the name Kaleleokalani – the flight of the heavenly one. After her husband passed, the name changed from the original “Kaleleokalani” to “Kaleleonālani” — the flight of the heavenly ones — to memorialize the passing of her family.

After these devastating events, Queen Dowager Emma traveled abroad to Europe and America. In England, she was able to bind ties with the Anglican Church and the Hawaiian Kingdom. There, she was received formally at Windsor Castle by her dear pen pal and kindred spirit, Queen Victoria. She herself was a Queen who experienced widowhood profoundly. The two monarchs corresponded through letters frequently and shared a warm friendship for the rest of their lives.

Following her electoral loss to Kalākaua in the Royal Election of 1874 and the ensuing chaos by her supporters, Queen Emma decided to retire from public life. She lived out the rest of her days between Hānaikamalama (her summer palace in Nuʻuanu, Oʻahu) and the Rooke House, her childhood home in Honolulu. Following a series of strokes in 1883, she weakened and eventually passed away in 1885 at the age of 49. Queen Emma faced great losses in her life. Despite this, her quiet and enduring spirit continued to be a symbol of perseverance for her people. She encouraged the health and growth of the lāhui, and her memory continues to be a beacon of dignity and majesty for the Hawaiian people.

Queen Kapiʻolani as a Role Model

In the same vein, Queen Kapiʻolani was known as well for promoting modern health practices in Hawaiʻi. At the time of her own husband’s reign, that of King David Kalākaua, there was a smallpox epidemic in Hawaii. Queen Kapiʻolani along with King Kalākaua both demonstrated their commitment to the health of the Hawaiian people by being publicly vaccinated themselves. This was thus known as the "Great Vaccination Campaign" of 1883. This dispelled any fears and mistrust of the vaccination process and encouraged others to get vaccinated as well. Queen Kapiʻolani used her standing to break down barriers and improve the health of her people.

Queen Kapiʻolani tended to her lāhui close to home. She personally visited the Hansen’s Disease (leprosy) settlement of Kalaupapa to understand the plight of the disease upon her people. There on Molokaʻi with the jagged pali (precipices) looming overhead, she listened to the painful stories of the lepers. Most had been forcibly removed from their homes and families at the behest of christian missionaries, who were keen to assert their authority that they knew more about the disease than Hawaiians. In reality, their cure was family separation, religious conversion, and the life-long isolation of those inflicted with the disease. Similarly, children born in the settlement were forcibly taken off Molokai, at birth, from their mothers. The isolation, impoverishment, lack of medical treatment, and social stigma brought on by the disease was traumatizing to an indigenous culture that does not innately ostracize their sick and injured. As is so with many other indigenous peoples of the world, the circumstances surrounding foreign disease was yet another ivory pillar of colonialism building a foundation for outsiders to strengthen their grip on the land.

Left: Kalaupapa Hansenʻs Disease Leprosy Settlement, Molokai, circa 1895.

Right: Kapiʻolani Maternity Home, 1928.

Queen Kapiʻolani felt that something had to be done for her dying people. Following her return to royal court at Honolulu, she founded the Kapiʻolani Home for Girls in 1885 and five years later, she established the Kapiʻolani Maternity Home in 1890 (precursor to todayʻs Kapiʻolani Medical Center). These projects were funded through her personal perseverance, as she relied solely on charity lūʻau events rather than governmental funding. Her mission was the betterment of the helpless and needy, and also recultivating the growth of the Hawaiian people. Population decline due to introduced diseases had decimated and disrupted the entire population of Native Hawaiians.

Despite the tragedies that plagued the Hawaiian nation later in her life, Queen Kapiʻolani is remembered for her personal resolve upholding the health and livelihood of her people. Her maternity home still stands today after 130 years, and is now a nonprofit hospital that has expanded its care to children and adults alike.

Ka Mōʻī Wāhine ʻO Liliʻuokalani

Queen Liliʻuokalani was a strong advocate for education and worked to establish schools for Hawaiian women. She believed that education was key to empowering women and improving their lives. As reigning monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, one of her executive actions was to declare a Deed of Trust in 1909, establishing the Liliʻuokalani Trust. To this day, the Trust, funded by the private estate of the Queen, continues to provide care and service for vulnerable Native Hawaiian children and mothers.

Following Kalākaua’s death while traveling to San Francisco, she assumed her seat upon the throne on January 29, 1891. Her reign would come abruptly to an end after she was forcibly deposed during the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893. Following a rebellion by royalist Hawaiian supporters, she was wrongfully imprisoned in the upstairs room of ʻIolani Palace for nearly a year throughout 1895. Conspiring legislators, capitalists, and other political agents eventually led to the illegal annexation of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1898.

Despite the heavy burdens she faced, she was devoted to the welfare of all people, and was a symbol of strength and compassion. Despite being held metaphorically and literally at gunpoint by American capitalist colonizers, she held her head high, understanding the dignity and pride she needed to instill i ka lāhui. She is lovingly remembered as an expert musical composer, and a staunch supporter of the health and independence of her people. She continued to uphold the banner of her people until her death on November 11, 1917.

To this day, we still hear the her words: “e ʻonipaʻa i ka ʻimi i ka naʻauao...

Princess Kaʻiulani

Victoria Kawēkiu Kaʻiulani Lunalilo Kalaninuiahilapalapa Cleghorn was the only child born to Princess Miriam Likelike. Kaʻiulani was born into a high-ranking aliʻi family, her mother being the younger sister of King David Kalākaua and Queen Liliʻuokalani. Kaʻiulani’s father was a Scottish merchant who had established a name for himself in the Kingdom. At the young age of 11, she lost her mother. By 1889, at the age of 14 she went abroad to England to begin her formal education at the Great Harrowden Hall in Northamptonshire. While abroad, she excelled in painting and languages, and dreamed often of having simple meals of fish and poi.

Upon news of the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom by American-backed businessmen and the imprisonment of her aunt, Queen Liliʻuokalani, she returned home at the age of 17 in 1893. At the harbors of New York, the young heir roused the minds of the American public to her cause to restore Hawaiian Sovereignty. Many were surprised by her eloquence and conviction. Due to racist and sexist journalism at the time, many could not fathom a woman, no less a teenage girl, being able to stand her ground in a public forum. Not with weapons, but with wit and words. She pleaded to the public to recognize the atrocity of what was happening in front of their very eyes, reminding them that, America had only cast off the yoke of British colonialism less than a century prior.

1897 Petition Against the Annexation of Hawaiʻi

With success, she garnered the attention of newly-sworn U.S. President Grover Cleveland. A federal investigation was initiated, the Blount Report, which concluded that the military occupation of the Kingdom was illegal. Despite this damning evidence, she was unable to sway the President, as the annexationists had cemented their stance back home, and the soon-to-be President McKinley cared only for American interests. The annexationists incorporated Hawaiʻi as an American territory in 1898. The American government would provide a formal apology on the centennial of the overthrow, delivered by U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1993, acknowledging the United States' involvement in the illegal overthrow. Still,no action has been taken to restore Hawaiian Sovereignty today.

The Princess continued to advocate for the sovereignty of her nation until her passing in 1899. In face of the doubts and injustices, she did not waver in her resolve.

To this day, nā mea aloha ʻāina do not recognize the illegal overthrow and annexation of the Hawaiian Kingdom, nor the continued illegal occupation and abuse of Hawaiian lands by The United States of America. We honor the late Princess for committing herself to her people and to her lāhui, in the face of innumerable obstacles.

Nānā ma hope; Nānā ma mua

- Looking back to look forward

These women, along with many others, played important roles in shaping Hawaiian history and preserving Hawaiian culture. We recognize and praise their steadfast efforts, wisdom, and foresight to continue nurturing the Hawaiian people. Mahalo nui loa iā ʻoukou a pau!

Looking back at this brief recount of Hawaiian women leaders and their works, what is it that you yourself can learn and implement in your daily life? How can we continue their works today? Let us all do it together as a lāhui as they intended, and remain ʻonipaʻa.

All images courtesy of The Hawaiʻi State Archives.

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