Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Wilhelmina Kekelaokalaninui Widemann Dowsett, 1861-1929
By Rumi Yasutake, Konan University
Wilhelmina Kekelaokalaninui Widemann Dowsett was a suffragist in Hawai‘i who headed the Woman's Equal Suffrage Association of Hawai‘i (WESAH), the first woman suffrage organization formed in the islands at the time of Carrie Chapman Catt's visit to the islands in 1912. This was the organization affiliated with the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) with Catt's assistance.
Wilhelmina Kekelaokalaninui Widemann was born in Hawai'I to a German planter father, Hermann A. Widemann, and a Native Hawaiian mother of the chiefess rank, Mary Kaumana Pilahiuilani. Her father was a successful coffee planter on the island of Kauai and occupied high-ranking offices in the kingdom government. He was once known as a “devoted royalist” supporting Queen Liliuokalani in resisting U.S. annexation.
In 1888 Widemann married John “Jack” Dowsett, descended from a British sea captain who settled in Hawaii in 1828. Racially-and-culturally-hybrid Wilhelmina K.W. Dowsett mediated U.S.-colonized Native Hawaiian women and demographically-minority white-settler colonialist women by generating a woman suffrage movement in post-annexation Hawai‘i. Dowsett, along with her sister Emilie Kekauluohi Widemann Macfarlane, were also active in the Daughters of Hawai‘i, an organization of white settler women of missionary heritage and Native Hawaiian women to preserve the kingdom's high culture, to which both groups of women belonged.
Hawai‘i became a U.S. possession in 1898 and a territory in 1900. When the Hawaiian Organic Act written on Capitol Hill depriving women citizens in the islands of suffrage, racially-hybrid Native Hawaiian women, especially those born to a non-American father and Native Hawaiian mother of the chiefess rank, took leadership roles in generating a woman suffrage movement. On the occasion of Carrie Chapman Catt's visit to the islands in 1912, they formed an organization, for the suffrage cause. With Catt's assistance, it became Hawai‘i's affiliate of NAWSA in 1913. Since then, mainland NAWSA members visited the islands to promote and to report about woman suffrage activity in the islands. Their reports, such as those written by Alice Locke Park of Palo Alto in 1915 and Almira Hollander Pitman of Brookline MA in 1917, impressed their readers with Hawai‘i's territorial legislators' readiness for woman's vote. Accordingly, NAWSA leaders successfully pressed Congress to place the woman suffrage issue under the jurisdiction of Hawai‘i's territorial legislature in 1918.
Encouraged by such developments, Hawai‘i's woman suffrage movement thrived. In 1919, a series of mass demonstrations were held drawing women of various racial and ethnic backgrounds. Nonetheless, deliberations in the two-house Territorial Legislature dragged on with the all-male legislators quarreling over how and when to grant women suffrage. Thus, momentum for woman suffrage eroded.
It was during this period that Hawai‘i's political, economic, and civic affairs were under the oligarchic rule of the minority white men of missionary heritage. Native Hawaiians constituted the clear majority of voters, but white men and women shared “settler anxiety” towards Native Hawaiian women, who numerically and politically exceeded white women. These white men and women were also concerned about the surging numbers of children of Asian immigrants with birthright citizenship who would soon reach voting age. Accordingly, while white men and women in power appeared to be supportive of woman suffrage, their main concern was how to avoid or at least delay non-white voters' victory over the white male oligarchic rule.
Meanwhile, the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibited federal and state governments from disfranchising women, and on August 26, 1920, Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby extended the amendment to be applied to women citizens in Hawai‘i.
Dowsett, presumably due to her German heritage, made especial efforts in war-relief and war-support movements led by white settler women of missionary heritage during WWI. After the war, she successfully generated racially-mixed mass women's demonstrations for the woman suffrage cause.
Allison Sneider, Suffrage in an Imperial Age: U.S. Expansion and the Woman Question, 1870-1929 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 104-14.
Ida Husted Harper, et al., eds., The History of Woman Suffrage IV, 1900-1902 (New York: J.J. Little &Ives Co., 1922), 381-82. [LINK]
Ida Husted Harper, et al., eds., The History of Woman Suffrage VI, 1900-1920 716-18. [LINK]
Alice Park, “Moving Towards Women Suffrage,” Pacific Commercial Advertiser, 3 March 1915, in Alice Park Papers Scrapbooks, Book 1, 108. Huntington Library, San Mateo, California
Rumi Yasutake, “Re-Franchising Women of Hawai‘i, 1912-1902: The Politics of Gender, Sovereignty, and Rank at the Crossroads of the Pacific,” in Gendering the Trans-Pacific World, eds. Cathy Ceniza Choi and Judy Tzu-Chun Wu (Amsterdam: Brill, 2017), 114-39.
Patricia Grimshaw, "Settler Anxieties, Indigenous Peoples, and Women's Suffrage in the Colonies of Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii, 1888 to 1902," Pacific Historical Review 69, no. 4 (2000).
Lawrence H. Fuchs, Hawaii Pono “Hawaii the Excellent”: An Ethnic and Political History (Honolulu: Pess Press, 1961), 152-81.
Refer Bell, Last Among Equal: Hawaiian Statehood and American Politics (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1984), 45.