Hawai'i's twentieth century working women: Labor feminists in their own right

Megan Elizabeth Diskin Monahan, Fordham University


This dissertation proposes that twentieth-century working women in post-war Hawai`i, who consistently boasted higher labor force participation than mainland women, significantly contributed to the state's labor movement. Their key roles in the movement's success cannot be denied, especially during Hawai`i's mid-century shift from an agricultural to a service economy. Yet, historians have overlooked these women's long stand for workers' rights. In fact, a comprehensive monograph of women's achievements in Hawai`i's thriving labor movement does not exist. As this research demonstrates, these female labor activists in Hawai`i supported their ILWU husbands and strikers' families at crucial moments in Hawai`i's labor history, like the Great Sugar Strike in 1946. In the 1950s, Hawai`i's working women picketed, organized soup kitchens, and walked off cannery assembly lines. Within the service and tourism industries, and the nursing and education professions, female labor activists in Hawai`i led strikes. In the 1980s, Hawai`i female government workers used the courts to achieve equal pay. Hawai`i's working women also agitated across many causes, like poverty, housing, education, and women's rights, developing alliances despite racial, ethnic and class differences. This dissertation also complicates Hawai`i's labor history, and the labor and gender history of the U.S. Namely, it analyzes how Hawai`i's historically paternalist economy motivated women in postwar Hawai`i to become labor activists. My work, then, illustrates a convergence between women's and labor history, as did Dorothy Cobble. This research also investigates why Hawai`i's isolated geography, and its racial and ethnic diversity, created a powerful incubator for female labor activism. Furthermore, my work examines how the growth of Hawai`i's labor movement during the tumultuous Civil and Modern Women's Rights Movements, with its challenges to male patriarchy, emboldened feminists in Hawai`i. Likewise, it builds on feminist historians, like Cobble, in recognizing how Hawai`i's working class women shaped feminist history for women of color. Therefore, my work transcends a middle-class, white feminist history. Lastly, my work eclipses the "top-down," political history of Hawai`i toward a cultural, "bottom-up" history.

Subject Area

American history|Womens studies|Labor relations

Recommended Citation

Diskin Monahan, Megan Elizabeth, "Hawai'i's twentieth century working women: Labor feminists in their own right" (2015). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3684553.