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Female Workers on Hawaii's Sugar Plantations
by Melody Lassalle
Females played a vital role in the sugar plantation labor force. They were given contracts just like the male workers and were expected to do the same work. The pay was less than what males received and opportunities to advanced did not exist.

If you think your female ancestors did not work, think again! Females made up an important part of Hawaii's work force from the early years of immigrations. Although many may contend that their Mothers, Grandmothers, etc. never worked, this was not the reality on the sugar plantation. You would find women working in the fields along side the men. The work and hours were equal, but the pay was not.

On a typical plantation, females worked in many capacities, but they were mostly field laborers. They could be found hoeing, stripping leaves from cane stalks, cutting cane, and loading cane. They also sewed the bags to hold sugar cane. Though they were not allowed in the mills, they did contribute to the mill work force. Females dealt with the sugar cane refuse--piling and loading it onto carts.

Birth of a baby did not stop them from working. They would go back to work in the fields with the baby tied to their back--sometimes within days of childbirth. Many tried to find other forms of work they could do from home so they could watch their child, but it was not always available.

Beyond field labor, females did other jobs that added to the family income. Some were able to find domestic work for the plantation families. They worked as maids, cooks, and in other servant positions. It was common for females to fill the "housewife" role for single males on a plantation. They prepared meals, operated baths, did laundry, cleaned house, and ran boarding houses for bachelors. Many did this work in addition to their days spent in the fields or in domestic service.

It is important to note that it was not only widows or single women who worked. Many married women had to work in order to keep the family afloat. Families were large and could not survive on one income. The idea of a Victorian era woman living the life of leisure hardly seems applicable. In addition to "outside" work, they still had to take care of their own households and families. A mother was often up by 4 am to get breakfast on the table. If she was home, children were tended to, the house was cleaned, and meals were cooked. If not, this was all done around the daily work schedule. So much for being held upon a pedestal!

To give you an idea of just how difficult housework was, let's look at how the laundry was done. Pre-1900 laundry was done without the benefit of washer, dryer, or electricity. The clothes were first boiled in a pot over a wood fire. Each item was scrubbed on a washboard. The clothes were rinsed with another pot of water. Then the clothes were hung out on a clothesline to dry. When the clothes were dried, they were taken down to be pressed. Flour and water was used to starch clothes. The clothes were pressed with a charcoal-heated iron. What was the average charge per bachelor for laundry service? About $1 a month!

Keep in my mind that some records may not tell the truth about the work that women did on the plantations. In some families, it was considered a failure if the wife and mother worked. In other cases, the jobs they did were not considered "real" work. Thus, this information was left off. You may have to rely on family stories rather than official records to figure out what work your female ancestors did.

updated 2/28/01
© 2001 Melody Lassalle
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