Position of Women

So far as it turns upon the distribution of labour, the position of the women, especially in the Polynesian region, is higher than among many other races. Where labour itself is more highly valued its distribution between the sexes is fairer. In Tonga almost all work, even that of cooking, fell to the men; the women only preparing tapa by way of entertainment among a circle of neighbours, accompanied by the men beating time. In Hawaii it was the same. Both work together in the fields, but fishing is the men’s affair; though women take part in diving for shells. Among the more needy tribes more is laid upon the woman, and with nomads she is the beast of burden. In New Zealand the women held formerly a higher position. They were not excluded from the discussion of public affairs, not even from councils of war; they even went with the men to battle. Husband and wife ate together, and the mother got as much obedience from her children as the father. Only in certain tribes destitution produced exceptions. Nothing in all this is altered where “mother-right” is valid; for though the children follow the mother, the father is still the head of the family, and his wedded wife does not belong to “his side of the house,” but remains “at the door.”

Princess Ruth of Hawaii. – (From a photograph belonging to Professor Buchner, Munich.)

As in affairs of daily life, so even in higher matters two views of the woman’s position are in dispute; and here too we find that the higher view is taken in some Polynesian groups. But even in the Melanesian Islands we meet with both not far apart. In the northern New Hebrides women seem freer than in the southern, and in some parts of New Guinea her position in the family is described as one of high esteem. But in Polynesia the notion that contact with her is defiling, excludes her from closer association with men at meals, at public worship, and at festivals. In Tahiti men and women have their separate priests; in other islands the women have none, and even a life in the next world is not allowed to them on the part of the men. In Melanesia the women may not enter the common houses of the men, nor the boat-houses, which are of the nature of temples. Yet again the Maoris ascribed prophetic gifts to the oldest woman of the tribe, while in Tonga there were priestesses who, after drinking ava, were possessed and prophesied. In Micronesia their social position has unmistakably risen. Here it is quite contrary to good manners for a husband to beat his wife or use insulting words to her in public.

In Pelew, if the woman insulted belongs to the Ajdit stock, the fine imposed is equal to that for homicide, and if it cannot be paid the culprit must fly the country. The greatest insult that can be offered to a married man is any ill word of his wife; and no one must mention the name of another man’s wife in public. A social organisation exists here for women corresponding to that of the men, and running almost parallel with it. Just as the chief of the men in Pelew must belong to the family whose seat is Ajdit, so the eldest woman of this family is the queen of the women. Beside her stand a number of female chiefs, with whom she keeps an eye upon the good behaviour of the women, holds her tribunal, and gives judgment without any man being allowed to interfere. So too the women are divided into leagues, called Klobbergoll. If these lack the important attribute of the male unions, – community of labour, participation in the wars, common dwelling in the bais, – they have the right to levy taxes at festivals and on the death of the military king. Among their duties are the management of the decorations at festivals, including the dances, of which the men openly admit that only the women understand the meaning. The men are strictly warned off the women’s bathing-places; exactly for which reason these spots are selected for lovers’ rendezvous. In this case the man is under the protection of the lady and her friends. A great auxiliary to these tendencies, which prevail in so many districts, towards giving a higher position to women, nay, even to the widespread “mother-right,” is that loosening of the marriage-tie which has progressed to the point of decomposing society.


No tie in the whole life of the Polynesians appears to be weaker than that of marriage. Small reasons are enough to undo it, and its undoing is taken very easily on both sides. This goes so far as to make the wife’s position one of simple thraldom, where she is regarded as the man’s property and no more. When Europeans in Polynesia wish to secure the favour of native women they have first to make a present to the husbands, who will hand over their wives, compulsorily if need be. In Hawaii a kind of incipient polyandry arises by the addition to the establishment of a “cicisbeo,” known as Punalua. Thus in Tahiti women of easy virtue could call themselves Tedua, which was also the name of ladies of the royal family. Very often the main object of matrimony appears to be not at all the procreation of children, but the husband’s comfort; or, at best, the guardianship of the wife, or some question of money. Besides this, not only the constraint of exogamy, but – at all events in the higher classes – political objects have to be considered.

Women of Ponapé in the Carolines. – (From the Godeffroy Album.)

One thing detrimental to marriage is the view that it is not seemly to display the wife to the world as being in confidential relations with her husband. Men never allow themselves to be seen on the highway with their lawful wives, though with a paramour they have no objection. If a stranger stays in the house the wife keeps out of the way. Even the number of children, which is kept as low as possible, is affected by this corrupting influence. It arises in great part from the tribal organisation with its union of men, involving necessarily the exclusion of the family; and even if the family exists beside it, it becomes corroded at the base. The more the system of men’s clubs develops, the weaker are family ties.

Women of Ponapé in the Carolines. – (From the Godeffroy Album.)

If a girl at ten or twelve years old has not found a husband, she goes as an armengol, or doxy, to a bai, and becomes the paramour of a man who keeps her. Until she can find some one to marry her – a matter of simple agreement – she can go from one bai to another. Often the opposed interests of the wives and the irregular partners lead to quarrels; and for this reason the paramour has a hut of her own built for her in the neighbourhood. Nothing, however, shows more clearly the way in which the superior force of social organisation breaks through the barriers of Nature than the fact that the married women do not object to maintain the girls of the bai, – another proof of the subordination of family to tribal interests which the mode of courtship has already exemplified. External life, too, is not family but village or tribe life. The Polynesians are sociable, but it is pre-eminently a masculine society; and domestic happiness is not unaffected by this. In this matter the Negroes are much better.