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Kini Kapahu Wilson

We continue our #womenshistorymonth series by paying homage to Kini Kapahu Wilson

Kini Kapahu Wilson (1872-1962), also known as Jennie, was a hula dancer, singer, and musician. She was a Hawaiian icon of community, politics, and culture in the first half of the 20th century.

She was born as Ana Kini Kapahukulaokamāmalu Ku‘ululani McColgan Huhu, the daughter of a Hawaiian woman and an Irish immigrant to Hawai‘i, John N. McColgan. As an infant, she was adopted by a Hawaiian woman, Kapahukulaokamāmalu, who was an expert chanter, hula performer, and friend of Queen Kapi‘olani, Kalākaua’s consort. She and her adoptive mother lived on a property adjacent to the royal palace. Her mother introduced Jennie to hula dancing. She joined Hui Lei Mamo, Kalākaua’s court hula dancer group, learning ‘ukulele, singing, ballroom dance, and the hula pahu and hula ālaʻapapa.

When Kalākaua died in 1891, the dancers no longer had a place in court. Nevertheless, they continued to benefit directly from Kalākaua’s cultural renaissance through training in hula ‘schools’, called hālau hula. Three Hui Lei Mamo dancers, including Kapahu joined a hālau hula. They danced for about six hours a day, taking swims in the ocean and meals in between practices.

After their ‘ūniki, Kapahu and a group of other dancers, chanters, and musicians were chosen to go to Chicago for the Exposition in 1893. They were the first hula dancers to dance on the mainland, or for that matter, anywhere in the Western world. Older Hawaiian traditionalists, including the King, did not approve of public performances of the hula for foreign audiences, but she eventually got permission to perform at the World’s Fair from Queen Kapiʻolani.

After performing in Chicago, she was invited to tour Europe. While in Berlin to perform for the Kaiser and German royalty, the Princess of Prussia tugged on her long hair to see if it was real. Jennie angrily snapped, “You hurt my hair!” and the Princess apologized by taking off her long gold necklace and giving it to Jennie.

When she returned to Hawaii, she married John Wilson, an engineer who shared Kapahu’s interest in politics. Her husband was elected Mayor of Honolulu three separate times, and Jennie relished the spotlight this afforded her.

Kapahu used her husband’s platform to advance women’s rights around the time that the nineteenth amendment was passed in the United States, which allowed women the right to vote. Kapahu was able to gain enough momentum to organize what’s considered “the first meeting of women in the territory to discuss the new sphere of womanhood” that the 1920s suffrage movement ushered in. She valued the opportunities her husband’s political position afforded her as a female ally; she once told the press she wanted him to stay in public office as long as he could just so she could “kick some shins.”

Kapahu took pride in Hawaiian culture; she was appointed the State historian and preferred to speak in Hawaiian, only speaking English when it was necessary. In 1960, she was one of Hawaii’s first presidential electors in the electoral college. She was declared Hawaii’s “Honorary First Lady” by the state legislature.

Find out more about Kini Kapahu Wilson here:

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