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Reports from HPR's political reporter Wayne Yoshioka

Kamala Harris' Election Sparks Local Conversations On Gender, Race, Political Power

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The election of Kamala Harris to serve as vice president of the United States has sparked conversations across the country about the role of gender and race in politics. Here in Hawai?i, the discussion covers history, culture, and the future of political power in the state.

Hawai?i has a long tradition of female leadership dating back to the Hawaiian Kingdom, says Noelani Goodyear-Ka??pua, a political science professor at University of  Hawai?i-M?noa.

"Our Queen Lili?uokalani was not the first to be a major political figure for the Hawaiian people, for our nation," says Goodyear-Ka??pua, "And it’s great to see that a country that illegally overthrew Lilli’u 127 years later is finally catching up to where we already were."

Prior to the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893, the islands were governed by a number of powerful women — Princess Ruth Ke?elik?lani, Queen Emma, Queen Kapi?olani, just to name a few.

Vicky Holt-Takamine, kumu hula of H?lau Pua ?A?ali?i ?Ilima and executive director of the PA?I Foundation, said it's about time the United States elected a woman to the second highest political office in the country. 

"I would say welcome to the hui of mana wahine," said Holt-Takamine. "I look at this hui — Bernice Pauahi Bishop, Queen Lili?uokalani, Queen Emma, Queen Kapi?olani — and what they have left for us. All of them left legacies for us by setting up ali?i trusts to fund education, social services, and health care for native Hawaiians."

This tradition continued through the 20th century, when Hawai?i voters elected the first woman of color to Congress, U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink in 1964. She pioneered federal legislation known as Title IX, which helped create a more equal university education system. The act, which now bears Mink’s name, barred sex discrimination in any school that accepted federal funds, and as a result helped boost the number of women enrolled in college.

Native Hawaiian doctor K?ohimanu Dang Akiona recalls growing up hearing “girls can be anything they want to be.” But she learned early on that barriers still existed for her, not just as a woman in medicine but as a woman of color and later as a working mother.

"I think 10 years ago, before I was a mom, it would have been meaningful to me maybe as a professional wahine," says Akiona, "But now because I’m raising the next generation, my daughter, to tell her like you can be anything you want. I think this moment is a sigh of relief that I wasn?t lying."

Lani Teves, who teaches women’s studies at UH M?noa, says Harris’ election may be symbolic of the progress underrrepresented women have made in politics but it's certainly doesn?t mean systemic barriers have all but been erased. 

"Like in Hawai?i, how come we don?t see that breakthrough?" says Teves. "We hear people talk about race a lot, which is certainly central, too. We have the same kind of like white or Japanese leaders but they also often happen to just be men. So how do we kind of change that?"

In Hawai?i this election, women ran in 42 races at all levels of government, winning more than half of them.

Khara Jabola-Carolous, executive director of the Hawai?i Commission on the Status of Women, says all this attention on women should help advance long-standing, gender-equality initiatives the commission has been lobbying for, including equal pay and family leave.

"I think that this energy and visibility around women and our lives will definitely provide more momentum at the local level," says Jabola-Carolus. 

She says the commission is working on a bill that would require state agencies to use gender-based analysis in decision making.

This could mean, for example, that prior to rolling out a new program or initiative, agencies would need to study the impact the undertaking will have on women in Hawai?i. The bill is named for the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and will be introduced in the coming session.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story included a wrong year for the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom.

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