Story by Teya Penniman | Painting of Pele by Linda Rowell Stevens
From the very beginning, Hawaiian culture has celebrated women’s power, passion and intellect. The creation chant Kumulipo states that the first human was a wahine (woman), La‘ila‘i. Even the formation of the islands is linked to a goddess: The story of Pele’s fire pits, which she dug from Kaua‘i to Hawai‘i Island, matches the origin of the island chain — volcanic eruptions that grew over millennia into a mountain range arcing across the ocean floor.
Pele’s sister goddesses were likewise formidable. The youngest, Hi‘iaka, battled demons and mo‘o (lizards) on her island-hopping task to fetch one of Pele’s lovers. Another sister, Kapo, saved Pele from the ravages of a pig god by distracting him with her flying vagina. Progenitors, earthshakers, dragon-slayers and shapeshifters, Hawaiian goddesses were powerful role models for real-life wāhine. And like Hi‘iaka’s skirt of fronds, the story of women in the islands is multilayered.
In old Hawai‘i, much of life was a double-duty affair: one imu (oven) to prepare food for the husband, and one for the wife. One hut where women ate, a second hale for men. Enclosed temples for the kāne (men); an outside space for wāhine to worship. Even the menus were different: coconut, pig, red fish, bananas and other items were ‘ai kapu (forbidden food) for the women. Activities also fell along gender lines. While women pounded kapa (bark) for clothing, and harvested limu (seaweed) and shellfish along the coast, men paddled out to deeper waters to cast nets for akule and other fish. Banned from certain activities, women lived entirely apart from their husbands during their waimaka lehua (monthly cycle). These prohibitions weren’t just recommendations; the penalty for men and women who broke the kapu could be death.
Some historians trace the development of the Hawaiian kapu system to a tale of desire and deception among the earliest deities, the god Wākea, and his wife, Papa. But a gender-based division of labor and space might also reflect an intrinsic sense of balance. Hawaiians classified places and objects into paired opposites, such as sky/earth, land/sea and day/night. Each sea creature or plant has its partner on land. In Classical Hawaiian Education, author and educator John Charlot writes that the origin model articulated in the Kumulipo could justify the division of all things into male and female. Inner waters are female, the deep sea is male. Within such a framework, clearly defined roles for men and women embody an understanding that complementary paired opposites constitute a whole.
But culture also depends on context and nuance abounds in Hawai‘i. A rock on land is male, but one with a more feminine shape could be considered female. By the time the first Europeans set foot on Hawaiian shores, rank existed along a continuum, from the highest ali‘i (chiefs) to the kauā, a class of outcasts. Roles for both women and men varied by status, island and circumstance. Wāhine serving at court spent time composing and reciting mele (songs) in honor of the ali‘i, not bent over tapa cloth. On Maui and Hawai‘i Island, female maka‘āinana (commoners) worked outside, tilling the ground, fetching food and firewood — unthinkable activities on the other islands. On Ni‘ihau, many native women were skilled at fishing and may have held priestly duties. Occupations across the islands also reflected specializations and abilities that developed along family lines. And in times of war, every able-bodied woman might join a battle.