Wāhine Issues: What Needs to Change for Women?

In the past 50 years, women in Hawai‘i have gained in individual rights, pay equity, and access to education and sports. But we haven’t achieved equality as many women still earn less than their male counterparts and shoulder more family responsibilities.


Womens Issues


The people of Hawai‘i supported women’s rights early and often. Politically, the state was the first in the nation to vote for the yet-to-be-enacted Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution designed to guarantee equal legal rights regardless of sex. Hawai‘i was the first state to legalize a woman’s right to choose an abortion. Yet pay equity remains elusive for many women, and issues of child and family care continue to fall disproportionately on women. On top of this continuing disparity many of the rights won decades ago are being challenged on the national stage by those who would take them away.


Where does that leave women now? Advocates we spoke with say Hawai‘i hasn’t lost ground on women’s rights but must remain vigilant while continuing to push forward. At the Hawai‘i Legislature, about a third of lawmakers are female—26 of 76—and are paid by their position regardless of gender. But Rep. Sylvia Luke, influential head of the House Finance Committee, knows that’s not the norm in the private sector, where female-dominated jobs routinely pay less than male-dominated jobs. “We still have a long way to go as far as pay equity is concerned,” she says.


SEE ALSO: How 3 Women Veered Off the Traditional Restaurant Route to Forge Their Own Culinary Paths


Luke, first elected to the state House in 1998, says major progress has occurred in the past two decades. “I feel so inspired that the head of American Savings Bank and the head of [Hawaiian Electric Co.] are both women and in their 40s,” she says. “Growing up that was not even a possibility.”


“All of these rights and policies that ensure equal opportunity constantly have to be worked at and protected.”


One lawmaker who paved the way for progress—locally and nationally—was U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink. She was the first woman of color and the first Asian American woman elected to the U.S. House. An attorney, Mink proved pivotal in Congress passing the Title IX act to guarantee women equity in education while also opening the doors for female athletes.


While laws that legalize abortion and provide access to family planning services and gender equity in sports and education have come under fire at the federal level, Hawai‘i lawmakers have not seen a push to chip away at those rights locally.


State House Majority leader Della Au Belatti says her 16 years in politics have shown her the importance of remaining vigilant. “Hawai‘i is a leader on women’s rights, on reproductive rights, on Title IX. But as with anything, all of these rights and policies that ensure equal opportunity constantly have to be worked at and protected,” Belatti says.


SEE ALSO: The History of Hawai‘i From Our Files: Exploring Women’s Rights in the 1970s


And in an era of national politics marked by rigid battle lines, Hawai‘i’s female lawmakers tend to work across party lines. This year’s women’s legislative caucus—16 women in the House and 10 in the Senate—jointly supported bills to improve health and safety for women, children and families. The caucus sent out a joint statement outlining its goals this year from Democratic Sens. Michelle Kidani and Rosalyn Baker, as well as Republican Rep. Lauren Cheape Matsumoto.


The women’s caucus package offers a mix of broad measures and those targeted at specific outreach. They include proposals to: extend Medicaid postpartum coverage to 12 months; require insurers to cover mammography services at least as favorably as other radiological examinations; and update and clarify duties of educational programs under the state version of Title IX. Other proposals would: require a community-based work furlough program for all eligible women; require annual reports on commercial sexual exploitation of children; develop a risk assessment tool specifically for female offenders; and appropriate funds to train incarcerated women to be peer tutors and separately, to integrate children of incarcerated women into treatment programs.


“I feel so inspired that the head of American Savings Bank and the head of [Hawaiian Electric Co.] are both women and in their 40s.”


Matsumoto says the bills aimed at addressing the challenges facing women at risk, exploited children, and women in prison are critical to breaking “the cycle of intergenerational trauma.”


This year marks the 50th anniversary of Title IX so the caucus dedicated its efforts to Mink, who co-authored the legislation in 1972. “Congresswoman Mink was a trailblazer for women nationally, not just in Hawai‘i,” Baker said in describing the proposals. “She was also a tireless advocate for gender equity in education and access to quality child care for all families.”


SEE ALSO: 2022 Wāhine of Hawai‘i


As the executive director of the Hawai‘i Commission on the Status of Women, Khara Jabola-Carolus advocates daily for gender equity in a straight-talking style. She says Hawai‘i is doing relatively well at protecting landmark policies such as abortion rights, health care coverage, and anti-sexist institutions like the Commission on the Status of Women. “We’re good at playing defense,” she says.


Another trailblazing former congresswoman and state lawmaker, Pat Saiki, recalls the battles to pass those laws in the 1970s. Saiki proved instrumental as a state lawmaker, despite her status as a minority Republican in a Democratic-controlled state government. She helped pass laws to ensure women could hold credit cards and mortgages in their own names and other financial rights. At the time, women could be forced to take maternity leave without pay and with no guarantee they would get their jobs back when they returned to work. She also helped pass bills that would entitle women with pregnancy-related illnesses to be covered by temporary disability insurance, that allow women equal inheritance rights for their state pensions, and ended the requirement that a woman take her husband’s last name when she marries.


In the 1960s, Saiki witnessed firsthand the results of abortion being illegal. Her husband was an OB-GYN whose patients would sometimes call him in distress after their illegal abortions went wrong, saying, “I’m afraid I’m going to die if something doesn’t happen.” She recalls standing with him numerous times in the middle of the night holding a flashlight in his office so that he could help a patient while trying not to call attention to the operation, which could then be considered a felony. Despite the angry pitched battle that’s become so common in today’s political arena, Saiki still believes in the process. “Politics is not a game and it’s not a negative force, it’s something that can be used to make things better,” she says.


“The challenges women were expected to handle quietly are out in the open more than ever and the conversation around caregiving is center stage.”


Jabola-Carolus acknowledges earlier gains, but she says the pandemic further exposed the strains on families. “Women in Hawai‘i experienced the highest rate of unemployment in the United States and women are not recouping on par with men,” she says. “Violence against women has surged” as mental health suffered and abortion access was cut off for the Neighbor Islands, she says.


Many advocates stress that pandemic-related isolation worsened already existing problems. While lawmakers we spoke with see progress on some family issues, Jabola-Carolus says big changes are needed to wrest power from business interests and the status quo supported by insiders “unsupportive or outright hostile to feminist policy like paid family leave, paid sick leave, free universal public child care, modernization of workplaces, shorter workweeks, and workers generally.”


SEE ALSO: Making Waves: 6 Women in Hawai‘i with Careers in STEM Share Their Stories


The silver lining in the pandemic, she says, is that it normalized telework, where parents openly dealt with family demands of child care regularly in the home workplace. And the strain of the pandemic also prompted people to talk more often about their own mental health issues. “The challenges women were expected to handle quietly are out in the open more than ever and the conversation around caregiving is center stage.”


Yet, Jabola-Carolus remains a little surprised on a personal level that a blunt email auto-reply message she wrote in the peak of COVID-19 lockdowns in July 2020 went viral on social media and continues to draw attention across the globe. Then 33, with an infant and toddler both at home with her, she and her husband were struggling to balance their professional and family responsibilities.


Her message that struck a chord read:


“Aloha, Due to patriarchy, I am behind in emails. I hope to respond to your message soon, but, like many women, I am working full-time while tending to an infant and toddler full-time. According to the Washington Post, the average length of an uninterrupted stretch of work time for parents during COVID-19 was three minutes, 24 seconds.”


The message, which included how to reach her quickly for time-sensitive matters, continues to reverberate—drawing mostly support and empathy and some criticism—with news media reporting the story as far away as Australia and Europe. In February, it was still making the rounds among United Nations staffers, she says.


SEE ALSO: Facing Fertility Challenges: How Options in Hawai‘i Provide Support and Hope


Jabola-Carolus says she wrote the message both as the state’s advocate for women and for her personal survival. “I had a baby under 1 when COVID hit and day care shut down at the same time as I was expected to put the commission in overdrive. I was working myself to the bone and not being given any grace,” she says. She hoped that being open made it safer for others to speak up. “It might cost me derision or eye-rolling by some bureaucrats but I can handle that,” she says.



Some Milestones for Women in Hawai‘i

1819 Queen Ka‘ahumanu abolishes the kapu system, allowing women to eat with men

1965 Patsy Mink becomes the first woman of color elected to the U.S. House and the first Asian American woman to serve in Congress

1968 Mary George becomes the first woman elected to the Honolulu City Council

1970 The Hawai‘i Legislature passes the Freedom of Choice Act on Feb. 24, legalizing a woman’s right to choose an abortion

1972 Hawai‘i becomes the first state to ratify the still-not-enacted U.S. Equal Rights Amendment, a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution designed to guarantee equal legal rights regardless of sex

1974 Congress passes the Women’s Educational Equity Act, commonly known as Title IX, to promote gender equity in schools, including sports

1980s Eve Anderson becomes the first woman to compete in the Moloka‘i-to-O‘ahu kayak race and the first Hawai‘i woman to compete in the Ironman Triathlon

2002 Linda Lingle is elected as the state’s first female governor

2019 Hawai‘i becomes one of a few states to codify and expand Title IX into state law (to protect women from rollbacks by the Trump administration)

2020 Hawai‘i is the first and only state where sex trade survivors can go through a process to have a prostitution conviction removed from their record

2021  Hawai‘i is the first and only state in the nation where a law defines the act of buying sex as “sexual exploitation”


Sources:  The Changing Lives of Hawai‘i’s Women: Progress Since Statehood, A Contemporary Historical Record; the Hawai‘i State Public Library; the Hawai‘i State Commission on the Status of Women



What Comes Next? 

As executive director of the Hawai‘i Commission on the Status of Women, Khara Jabola-Carolus cites her three top priorities for improving the lives of local women and families:

  • Fund a movement incubator that trains women in community organizing, theory and tactics: “Women are burnt out, bitter and feeling powerless,” which offers an opportunity to build political will through resources and training.
  • Introduce the concept of gender-responsive budgeting and institutionalize gender impact assessment tools across government that counteract the sexist design of current policy, funding, programming and services. This would include redesigning the workplace and economy around the reality of women’s lives.
  • Continue work to combat sex trafficking and identify how to help those drawn into the sex industry. “Dismantle the physical institutions of rape culture like the local sex industry, which also fuels the crisis of missing and murdered Native Hawaiian women and girls.”