Political Involvement of 19th Century Hawaiian Women the Focus of an Upcoming Film
By Manu Ka‘iama
Did you know that the first female Supreme Court Justice of the United States of America was Sandra Day O’Connor? She was appointed by President Ronald Reagan and served from 1981-2006. Most “older” people know that. Did you know that the first female Supreme Court Justice of the Hawaiian Kingdom was Miriam Kekāuluohi? She was appointed by King Kamehameha III. She served from 1840–1845, 141 years before Sandra Day O’Connor. Most of us, even the older generations, do not know this.
“History is written by the winners, so it largely depends on who’s writing the history,” United States Attorney General William Barr responded when reporter Catherine Herridge asked him to comment on his controversial pardon of Michael Flynn. Could this be the reason that we don’t see Hawaiian female leaders in our history books today? Because our history was written by “the winners?”
Many kānaka today are driven by a passion to seek the truth about our history. But there are others here in our native land who are also driven to help. One such individual is local filmmaker Gloria Borland.
Borland, who is half-Black and half-Japanese, has taken it upon herself to produce a film that tells the story of Hawaiʻi’s female leaders. Entitled Hawaiʻi Women Voted, the film will shatter stereotypes that women in the Hawaiian Kingdom didn’t vote. In actuality, Hawaiian women were politically active, contributing in many ways to the governance of Hawaiʻi in the 19th century. Borland hopes that sharing this aspect of Kingdom history will put that myth to rest.
For the past six months, Borland has been researching influential women in Hawaiʻi. It all began last July at the Women’s Caucus Meeting for the Democratic Party of Hawaiʻi. The 100th anniversary of Women’s Suffrage in 2020 was being discussed and Borland realized that all the focus was on continental suffragettes.
Borland wondered if Hawaiʻi also had a movement. With a quick internet search she learned that in 1912 Wilhelmine Dowsett, who was half-Hawaiian and half-German, founded the Hawaiʻi Chapter of Women’s Suffrage. Borland wanted Hawaiʻi’s involvement in such a crucial movement to also be acknowledged in the celebration.
Borland grew up in Hawaiʻi and graduated from Radford High School. After high school, she attended George Washington University, intent on pursuing a career in media. While in Washington D.C. she secured a position with Senator Daniel Inouye and worked for him throughout college. Borland later volunteered with Representative Patsy Mink.
The more that Borland learned about the political activities and influence of Hawaiian women, the more she felt compelled to tell the rest of the world about our progressive and brilliant country – the Hawaiian Kingdom – by producing a film.
As Borland delved into her research, she was floored to discover that Hawaiian Women played such a crucial role in the political history of the Hawaiian Kingdom. Of course, the 1887 “Bayonet” Constitution changed everything. This constitution was the recipe for the subsequent illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom by American agents.
Borland’s film calls attention to the fact that women in the Hawaiian Kingdom had many “rights” that were unheard of for women in the United States during the same era. For example, when the concept of land ownership became law in Hawaiʻi in 1845, the right to own, buy and sell land was also given to women. And within the monarchy’s House of Nobles, which represented the vested rights of the chiefly class, many women participated in decision-making for the Hawaiian Kingdom. Hawaiian women were prime ministers, judges, a supreme court justice, governors and held other equally important positions of leadership. A sample of the women featured in Borland’s film include:
Emma Kailikapuolono Metcalf Beckley Nakuina: Nakuina was a judge, a government commissioner, and was made custodian of the laws of the Hawaiian Kingdom. She spoke seven languages, managed the Hawaiian Government Library and was the curator of the Hawaiian National Museum. She was a genius and her brilliance intimidated many American businessmen.
Miriam Kekāuluohi: Kekāuluohi was a Supreme Court Justice, the highest court in the land, for the Hawaiian Kingdom. She was appointed by King Kamehameha III and served from 1840 to 1845.
Princess Ruth Keanolani Kanahoahoa Keʻelikōlani: Keʻelikōlani served as governor for Hawaiʻi Island from 1855-1874. Governors collected taxes, presided over all judges on the island, and had oversight of the police, sheriffs, soldiers, forts and munitions of war.
Victoria Kūhiō Kinoiki Kekaulike: Kekaulike was also a governor for Hawaiʻi Island, serving from 1880-1884.
Today, scholars and historians fluent in Hawaiian are examining old records and translating the information they uncover. The full extent of women’s political power in the Kingdom era is not fully known. We look forward to the day when the truth will be told, and histories will be corrected. We are due, at least, that consideration. Borland’s film, which will debut later this year, will help to set the record straight.
Manu Kaʻiama is a CPA and instructor at both Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies and the Shidler College of Business at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.