Joyce N. Chinen


If work were viewed as purposeful activity, as activity involving thought, preparation, and follow-through, then it would be easy to see that women have always worked. However, work has not always been defined in this manner. In fact, as America and Hawai'i became industrialized, work became defined in terms of employment. As a result, most women were not considered workers by the government, nor by society at large. Why was this the case? The answer, most historians agree, lay in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century ideas of separate spheres, which held that men's proper place was in the marketplace, and women's was in the home. Men were presumed to be more suited for the rigors and wickedness of the marketplace, so they assumed the "good provider" role. Women's purity of heart and mind, it was thought, made them ideal candidates for the care and rearing of children and for the creation of comfortable homes for men.

If women were employed at all, it was in their late teens and early twenties. This was a general pattern established in the earliest years of industrialization in America by the labor recruiters for the Lowell and Waltham textile mills in Massachusetts. Factory girls, as they were called, were among the first industrial workers in the U.S. and were essential income generators for their families, most of whom lived on farms. The families were assured by the recruiters that the young women would receive dormitory housing, spiritual instruction in their spare time, and income that the families could use for their own needs or for dowries.

In Hawai'i, as on the mainland, the nature of women's work heavily depended on the historical period, on their racial or ethnic background, on their socioeconomic standing, and, most importantly, on their status as wives, daughters, or mothers.

Women's work in pre-contact Hawai'i depended on social status, the season, and where the women lived. Most women had maka'a inana (Commoner) status, so their days were spent tending plots of sweet potatoes, gathering limu and plants for food, medicine, and crafts, creating kapa, and weaving lauhala mats. Child care was a communally shared responsibility, but because of gender segregation in certain activities, younger children were more likely to be in the care of women. Because men were responsible for the important religious rituals, everyone was segregated by gender and age during meal preparation and consumption.

These customs were undermined after the arrival of Captain James Cook and other, largely European, explorers. The introduction of Western warfare technologies intensified conflict among the chiefs and resulted in the political consolidation of the chiefdoms into a single kingdom under Kamehameha I. As the Kingdom of Hawai'i found itself being drawn into East-West trade, there were challenges to the traditional kapu, religion, and family organization. Liholiho abolished the kapu system, and the regent Ka'ahumanu, an early convert to Christianity, ordered the destruction of the idols and heiau. Diseases introduced by the sailors and traders had dramatically reduced the native population, and now Hawaiians were faced with a new religion: Christianity.

Among the Christian missionaries sent by the New England­p;based American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions were women like Sybil Mosely Bingham, Juliette Montague Cooke, and Lucy Goodale Thurston, who taught in the schools that they founded with their husbands. That many missionary women had met and married their husbands only a few weeks before their departure for Hawai'i speaks not only to their courage and determination, but also to the narrow range of opportunities available to women at that time. The missionary influence on Hawaiian royalty and chiefs was considerable, and over time, critical changes in the legal system, including the writing of a constitution and government control of land, were made.

Many of the lay people who came as missionaries eventually settled in Hawai'i and began successful businesses provisioning whalers and the East-West trading industry. As the whaling industry declined, they turned their attention to growing and marketing sugar. The rise in power of those connected with the sugar industry coincided with the decline of the power of the monarchy. Although valiant efforts to reestablish monarchical power were made by both Queen Emma and Queen Liliu'okalani, too much had changed during the nineteenth century, and in 1893, the Hawaiian kingdom was overthrown. In just over a century's time, Hawai'i went from being a set of chiefdoms to an independent kingdom, from a sovereign nation to a mere territory of the United States.

The sugar industry required a large labor force, but the native population had been reduced through disease and those remaining seemed to be unwilling to work for the daily wage of twelve and a half to fifty cents. The planters therefore sought labor from other parts of the world. European laborers tended to require higher pay and to be difficult to control because they came with wives and children, and therefore with settlement expectations. Asian contract >

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