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The Royal Women of Hawaii

March 1, 2014

Queen Ka‘ahumanu was one of the most powerful women in Hawaii’s history. Her influence during the early 1800’s dramatically transformed Hawaiian culture and society.

In honor of National Women’s History Month, throughout  March we will be featuring stories about some of the fascinating women in our Islands’ histories. When people think of women’s roles in ancient Hawaiian society, many assume that women were seen as inferior due to the kapu system which put restrictions on women (such as what they could and could not eat). However, most people are unaware that there were indeed powerful women, even before foreign influence. For example, it is said that there were female chiefs over whole islands in ancient times and that there were elite female warriors.

Hawaii's Queen Emma

Hawaii’s Queen Emma

As King Kamehameha the Great rose to power between 1790-1810, he delegated significant authority to certain women. For example, it is said that when Kamehameha defeated the powerful chiefdom of O`ahu he abolished all of the places of refuge. What that meant was that there were no longer any places of safety for defeated warriors, kapu breakers or others in need of protection. He then declared that the power of the gods would be given to his favorite wife Ka`ahumanu, and that she, in herself, would become a place of refuge, so that those in need of protection only had to go to here for protection. It is also said that even though Kamehameha was the great king of all of Hawaii, he would bow to the ground in the presence of Keopuolani, because she was of higher birth. Both Ka`ahumanu and Keopuolani were instrumental after the death of their husband in ending the kapu system, which helped liberate women from the severe laws and helped bring the chiefly-class women into the political decision making process. These and other dynamic women like them, such as Princess Kapiolani, Queen Emma and Queen Lili’uokalani helped change Hawaiian society forever through their deeds. Stay tuned throughout March as we celebrate the women who helped shape Hawaii’s history. For more information about Women’s History Month, visit the Library of Congress website: Aloha!

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