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

Nov 12, 2020

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 Hawaiʻi, the discussion covers history, culture, and the future of political power in the state.

Hawaiʻi has a long tradition of female leadership dating back to the Hawaiian Kingdom, says Noelani Goodyear-Kaʻōpua, a political science professor at University of  Hawaiʻi-Mānoa.

"Our Queen Liliʻuokalani was not the first to be a major political figure for the Hawaiian people, for our nation," says Goodyear-Kaʻōpua, "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 Keʻelikōlani, Queen Emma, Queen Kapiʻolani, just to name a few.

Vicky Holt-Takamine, kumu hula of Hālau Pua ʻAʻaliʻi ʻIlima and executive director of the PAʻI 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 Liliʻuokalani, Queen Emma, Queen Kapiʻolani — and what they have left for us. All of them left legacies for us by setting up aliʻi trusts to fund education, social services, and health care for native Hawaiians."

This tradition continued through the 20th century, when Hawaiʻi 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 Kāohimanu 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 wasnʻt lying."

Lani Teves, who teaches women’s studies at UH Mānoa, says Harris’ election may be symbolic of the progress underrrepresented women have made in politics but it's certainly doesnʻt mean systemic barriers have all but been erased. 

"Like in Hawaiʻi, how come we donʻt 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 Hawaiʻi 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 Hawaiʻi 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 Hawaiʻi. 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.