Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Ethel Frances Smith Baldwin, 1879-1967
By Rumi Yasutake, Konan University
Ethel Frances Smith Baldwin (1879-1967), a white-settler woman of missionary heritage, played a crucial role in securing the women's right for elective office in the U.S. territory of Hawai'i. Hawai'i in the early twentieth was under U.S. semi-colonial rule, where the prerogative of writing and amending its constitution (called the Hawaiian Organic Act) was in the hands of the U.S. Congress. As such, woman suffragists in the territory had to maneuver their way through both the territorial and federal legislatures in order to assure women's complete suffrage—the right to vote and to be voted for.
Ironically, Hawai'i's white settler women of missionary heritage were reluctant suffragists. Being a racial minority, they were uneasy about enfranchising woman citizens of the territory, where Native Hawaiians composed the clear majority of the electorate at the time and enfranchisement of women would double their votes. Nonetheless, they became active in Hawai'i's woman suffrage movement, as passage of the Nineteenth Amendment approached.
After application of the Nineteenth Amendment to U.S. territories in 1920, whether or not women were granted the right to hold elective office became a point of contention in Hawai'i. Some Native Hawaiian woman suffragists went ahead to run for election on the Democratic ticket, causing controversy. In contrast, Ethel F.S. Baldwin and her colleague white settler women of missionary heritage used their new right to influence male politicians to achieve women's causes.
Ethel was married to Henry (Harry) Alexander Baldwin from the island of Maui. Both were from Hawai'i's pioneer missionary families—the core of Hawai'i's white oligarchy holding a firm grip over the islands' economy, politics, and civic affairs. Ethel, who was born and raised in Hawai'i, had close relationships with Hawaiian royalty and nobility who retained authority over Native Hawaiians. As a missionary descendant from the U.S. northeast, she also had a link to mainland suffragists active in Washington, D.C. When her Republican husband ran for the territorial delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, Ethel used her networks to stimulate inter-racial women's voting, which proved instrumental in his victory. Consequently, Harry A. Baldwin, during his term as the delegate, successfully memorialized Congress to amend the Hawaiian Organic Act and officially assured the right for woman citizens to hold elective office in the territory of Hawai'i in 1922.
Patricia Grimshaw, "Settler Anxieties, Indigenous Peoples and Women's Suffrage in the Colonies of Australia, New Zealand, and Hawai'i, 1880 to 1902," Pacific Historical Review 69 (2000): 553-572.
A. Grove Day, A Biographical Dictionary: History Makers of Hawaii (Honolulu: Mutual Publishing of Honolulu, 1984), 7-8; Frances B. Cameron and Barbara B. Lyons, "Baldwin, Ethel Frances Smith," in Notable Women of Hawaii, ed. Barbara Bennett Peterson (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1984), 19-22.
Rumi Yasutake, "Women in Hawai'i and the Nineteenth Amendment" in Journal of Women's History 32 (2020): 32-40.