Where are all the renegade women?
More are popping up in big screen movies and television shows like Netflix and HBO. But there’s still a dearth of juicy complex female characters, notwithstanding the long list of “women behind bars” shows and murderess archetypes like Alias Grace or Lizzie Borden.
My attraction to stories about women-breaking-rules is less about women behaving badly and more about seeing a woman taking definitive control of her life. The overwhelming response to the Wonder Woman movie and a recent rash of Hollywood successes like Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri suggests I’m not alone in my love for renegade women.
So, imagine my joy in discovering a female pirate named Ching Shih who ruled an armada of ships with over 40,000 pirates in the early 19th century! And, my joy continued when I learned about a regent Queen who kidnapped a neighboring island King and established the first treaty between Hawaii and the United States in the 18th century.
These women making history traverse waters unchartered by other women – cultivating personal relationships and building a truly unique leadership platform.
Today’s article is the first in a two-part series about renegade women. Next month I’ll feature Ching Shih’s story; one that I’ve waited too long to tell.
Today’s story begins with a tour bus ride to the top of a dormant volcano named Haleakala. Our driver Glen is from Connecticut, and regales us with stories from his thirty years as a Maui islander. That’s where I hear about a cave called Puu Kauiki, not far from the road we’re traveling on. It’s the birthplace of Queen Ka’ahumanu.
The sky is still dark for another 20 minutes until the sun rises at 5:45 a.m. Each day, 150 people are allowed up Haleakala to watch this glorious phenomenon. It’s the most popular and spectacular thing to do in Maui. When I look up at the bright stars and the twinkling lights below I wonder what the volcano looked like to Queen Ka’ahumanu 250 years ago.
When Ka’ahumanu was born in 1768, wars between the islands were frequent and tribal chiefs vied to control lands, trade routes and waterways.
In fact, Ka’ahumanu was named after her father’s main rival, a man he had recently defeated in battle. You could say Ka’ahumanu’s destiny was forged at birth.
Her father Keeaumoku was a powerful nobleman from the island of Hawai’i, with royal lineage, and her mother, Nāmāhānaikaleleokalani, was married to the late king of Maui. Ka’ahumanu’s biological father was not happy to have a daughter so Ka’ahumanu’s mother hid her in a cave until she was eventually accepted.
When Ka’ahumanu turned 13 years of age, she was married off to King Kamehameha who had twenty-one other brides; although he claimed Ka’ahumanu was his favorite. Their relationship was loving and filled with mutual respect, even though Ka’ahumanu was extremely jealous of his other wives. When the King was dying, he decided to bestow Ka’ahumanu with special powers because she had often provided advice on government affairs.
Ka’ahumanu became a Regent Queen or a type of Prime Minister (kuhina) and was empowered to preside over the kingdom from 1823 to 1831 until the next son in line, Liholiho, was ready to assume the throne; King Kamehameha thought he was too young and lacked leadership experience.
During Ka’ahumanu’s tenure, she was fearless and instituted lasting changes in government, culture and political unity. Doing what no prior king had done, Ka’ahumanu enacted the first codified laws against murder and theft.
She also signed the first treaty with the American President John Quincy Adams, to forgive Hawaiian debts to traders and provide Americans with passage to their ports. Ka’ahumanu’s policies forged stronger ties between the archipelago of Hawaiian islands and other foreign countries like Portugal.
There are many stories about Ka’ahumanu and her ability to change the rules and expectations for women, even when the stakes were high. My favorite one is the brash courage she showed kidnapping the leader of the Kauai island, who was poised to wage war against her.
She did this by convincing one of her husband’s other wives, the mother of Kiholiho the young would-be-king, to help her kidnap the son of the neighboring King of Kauai. She was successful and to protect her investment, she married the son (Kealiʻiahonui) just to solidify the family bond!
Ka’ahumanu also transformed the Kapu system, which were cultural restrictions on women. Women were not allowed to smoke, eat or drink with men at the same table because they believed the gods would be angry and rain burning fire down on them. But when Ka’ahumanu asked the young soon-to-be King Liholiho to sit with women and everyone saw that nothing bad happened, the old rules were soon forgotten.
Like many renegade women in history, Ka’ahumanu did not pander to mainstream expectations and conventions. She established her own path and won the loyalty of Hawaiians. She listened to them and encouraged new ideas around religion, including the introduction of Christian missionaries to their settlements.
Over time, Ka’ahumanu became a devout Protestant and was baptized with the name “Elizabeth” in a joint Hawaiian/European ceremony at the Kawaiaha’o Church. Driving around Maui, you can still see the European influences in old structures like the one I visited for a posh business outing. As well, Hawaian civics clubs like the Ka’ahumanu Society were formed to inspire female leadership. They still exist and Queen Ka’ahumanu outfits – black muʻumuʻu dresses with yellow lei hulu, black gloves and hats –remind women to believe in themselves.
In his novel Hawaii, James Michener shares the history of the Hawaiian Islands with a section about Queen Ka’ahumaneha. Her bones are buried in Tahiti, Hawaii’s Motherland. As I sit and enjoy the last sunset of my Hawaiian vacation, I’m quietly cheering Ka’ahumanu’s accomplishment and thinking the gods are surely smiling down on her resting place.
See you next month on the high seas of China with Ching Shih!