Significant Women in Hawai‘i History

Feb 28, 2022 | Blog

It’s a crisp Honolulu morning, and the streets are abuzz with activity taking place in Kaka‘ako. The smell of freshly poured espresso mixes with the tropical breeze. However, the history of this beloved area extends beyond its contemporary iteration. In fact, there have been a bevy of notable Hawaiian women who have left a lasting impression upon the community. As we transition into March and Women’s History month, we’re honored to shed some light on three inspirational female figures who’ve shaped our collective landscape.


Ke Ali‘i Bernice Pauahi Pākī Bishop

In the pantheon of visionary Hawaiians, Ke Ali‘i Bernice Pauahi Pākī Bishop strikes a particularly inspiring tone. Her life coincided with one of the most pivotal periods in the history of Hawai‘i, and her legacy she left endures to this day. Born in the 1830s, just a few generations following Captain Cook’s arrival, her life was shaped by both political reformation and religious fervor. Eligible to take the throne after the passing of Prince Lot Kapuāiwa, she chose not to, paving the way for the first royal election that would see Lunalilo to the throne. However, it was her continued push for the education of her people that would change the future forever. Upon her death, she ensured that her estate be put forth to create a school for keiki of Native Hawaiian ancestry. It would come to be known as Kamehameha Schools and develop into a beacon of higher learning for generations, shaping countless ʻōiwi leaders and instilling a new breath of life into the people of Hawai‘i.


Queen Liliʻuokalani

Hānai sister to the aforementioned Bernice Pauahi Bishop, Queen Liliʻuokalani’s life also coincided with a tumultuous era in modern Hawaiian history. As the last monarch of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i, her poise and grace as well as her love of music and her people continue to ring through society today. Born Lydia Liliʻu Loloku Walania Kamakaʻeha in Honolulu in 1838, Liliʻuokalani’s passion for the people of Hawai‘i shined through every chapter of her life. In 1862, she married John Dominis, the son of an American ship captain and member of Hawaiian high society.

In the mid 1870s, Liliʻuokalani’s older brother, David Kalākaua, was crowned King. Following the untimely death of her brother, William Pitt Leleiohoku, Liliʻuokalani became the heir apparent to the Kingdom of Hawai‘i. In an interesting parallel to modern life, in the 1890s, Liliʻuokalani faced a smallpox outbreak that threatened the entire kingdom. Despite considerable criticism from Big Sugar for enacting tough restrictions, her actions helped to disable the disease, sparing many from the outbreak.

In 1891, she would be anointed Queen of the Kingdom, but her rule would be wrought with one of the most painful moments in Hawaiian history—the overthrow of its monarchy. As Queen, Liliʻuokalani sought to restore the monarchical powers stripped by the Bayonet Constitution a few years prior. In response, a mix of local businessmen known as the “Committee of Safety” attempted to overthrow the monarchy in a coup d’etat, backed by shadow American representatives. With a company of armed marines stationed at her front door and the love of her people in mind, Liliʻuokalani sought peace and wished to avoid bloodshed. In response, she was stripped of her crown and placed under house arrest. Eventually, she formally abdicated the throne, and the Republic of Hawai‘i was established, with Sanford Dole as its first head of state.

Throughout her life, Liliʻuokalani wrote more than 160 melodies, including our beloved state song, Aloha ‘Oe. Living out the remainder of her later life as a private citizen, Liliʻuokalani passed away at home in Honolulu on November 11, 1917, leaving an enduring legacy of aloha in her wake.


Mother Waldron

Today, Mother Waldron Park stands as a landmark in Honolulu. However, many of us are unfamiliar with the historical significance of the park’s namesake, Margaret “Mother” Waldron. Part Irish and Hawaiian, Margaret Waldron’s father was a maritime captain from the East Coast. But when he was lost at sea, she and her younger sister were orphaned at a tender age. Raised by the Judd and Castle families in Honolulu, she attended Kawaiaha‘o Seminary, a boarding school adjacent to the park that now bears her name. In the early 20th century, she became a fixture in Kaka‘ako, where her volunteer work and commitment to aloha forged an entire community for generations.

“Mother,” as she would come to be known in the community, began working at Pohukaina School in 1912, the same year the institution first opened its doors. She initially taught 4th grade to the mix of lower-income families who called Kaka‘ako home in the early 1900s. Not long after, she began overseeing the playground and serving free breakfast to neighborhood keiki. Equal parts social worker, best friend, disciplinarian, and educator, Mother Waldron was said to be a beacon of hope and betterment in Kaka‘ako for decades. When not teaching, she could be found helping new mothers, working with youths from gangs, and teaching cooking and sewing to anyone interested in learning a new skill.

In a 1976 interview, Mother Waldron’s daughter recalled that at one point, later in life, her mother was in the hospital and required a blood transfusion. Hearing the news, “Kaka‘ako people of all ethnic groups flocked to the hospital, telling the nurses that ‘We came to give Mama blood.’ The nurses were dumbfounded, wondering just how many children this woman had.”

Today, Mother Waldron’s generosity and commitment to the community continue to linger in the Kaka‘ako air. Famed Honolulu street artist Kamea Hadar completed a compelling portrait of the matron saint of Kaka‘ako in the offices of senior housing adjacent to the park. The next time you’re looking for a bit of inspiration or facing a challenge, ask yourself what advice Mother might give you. If her legacy is any indicator, chances are it’ll be something positive.

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