In Tonga, Women Cloak Their Power Under Mother Hubbard Dresses


In the South Pacific Kingdom of Tonga, an archipelago of 171 tropical islands about 1,245 miles northeast of New Zealand, women can’t own land. They play a subservient role to their husbands in domestic affairs and, by custom and law, must dress modestly, usually in Mother Hubbard-style dresses hemmed well below the knee.

To modern American women, this may sound like a sad state of affairs. But Emeline Tuita, the Tongan consul general in San Francisco, doesn’t think so.

“Sorry, we’re not suffering,” she said in a recent telephone interview.

Women did not appear to be suffering when I visited Tonga several months ago. In fact, in all apparent ways, including matters of equality between the sexes, Tonga seemed just as its late Queen Salote (mother of the current king, Tupou IV) described it in a 1937 speech to the Tongan Parliament: “There is not in the world a little kingdom like Tonga, peaceful, contented and happy.”


In the early 1770s, English explorer Capt. James Cook named the archipelago the “Friendly Islands.” But today’s Tongans struck me as more than a little standoffish. Patricia Ledyard thought so too. She went to Vava’u, a group of Tongan islands north of the capital of Nuku’alofa, in the middle of the last century to be headmistress at a missionary school for girls. In her fond memoir of life in Vava’u, “Friendly Island” (Pacific Publications, 1956), she suggested that the aloofness stems from the country’s rigid class system and from its effort to retain its cultural identity in the face of incursions from the Western world.

I had only superficial dealings with Tongan women, partly because most restaurants and guest houses for tourists are run by foreigners (who can’t own land in Tonga either). Still, in Nuku’alofa, I met young women professionals, mostly travel agents, and venerable older women at the open-air market, selling an exotic cornucopia of root vegetables and tropical fruit. In villages on far-flung Tongan islands, I stopped in at doorless frame cottages where women sat on the floor, weaving baskets. And everywhere, there were happy, shrieking schoolgirls in red and green uniforms.

Education in Tonga is free and compulsory for children 6 to 14, which explains the country’s 95% literacy rate. Whether girls get to go to school beyond age 14 is largely a matter of money, not sex. Queen Salote, who ruled Tonga from 1918 to 1965 and was educated in New Zealand, was a staunch supporter of schooling for young women, paying their school fees in hard times and setting up a group that supported education for women. More than that, she saw patriarchal British, German and American colonial influences as dangerous to the traditionally high position of women in Tongan society, according to Elizabeth Wood-Ellem’s new biography, “Queen Salote of Tonga: The Story of an Era, 1900-1965” (Auckland University Press, 1999).

By long-standing tradition, Tonga is partly a matriarchal society, with a senior woman, known as a mehekitanga, or “auntie,” sharing power over a family group with her brother. Auntie sits in front at weddings, funerals and birthday parties, according to Tuita, the consul general. If you want to get married, you must ask her permission; whatever auntie says goes.

The royal line of Tonga descends through women, not men. And though women can’t own land, they also don’t have to work it (which sets them apart from women in other Polynesian countries). Thus they are left to cook, sew, weave and occasionally be entrepreneurial. Interestingly, in Tonga, families without female children sometimes let a boy dress and act like a girl. He grows up as a transvestite, with little social stigma.

Before Methodist missionaries reached Tonga in about 1800, women went topless. There was also cannibalism. In an 1817 book, “Tonga Islands,” a young English sailor marooned in Tonga from 1806 to 1810 wrote that women led liberated lives. Most married and lived faithfully (though their husbands did not). Prostitution was unknown, single women could take lovers and divorce was common. “When a man divorces his wife,” author William Mariner reported, “she becomes [the] perfect mistress of her own conduct and may marry again, without the least disparagement to her character.”


Such practices soon changed as missionaries began converting Tongans to Christianity and imparting the mores of the Victorian age. Today, Tongans are deeply religious (by law, most businesses close on Sunday for the Sabbath) and decorous. Respectable girls never walk alone with boys, and the annual Miss Tonga beauty pageant doesn’t include a swimsuit contest.

Consul General Tuita says that Tonga hasn’t been entirely able to ignore the looser standards of the Western world. Education, technology and an increasingly cash-based economy have changed the way Tongan women live: More of them work outside the home (though never doing manual labor) and go abroad to college.

As important as education and economic independence are, something from Mariner’s 200-year-old memoirs sticks with me. Contemplating what would happen to Tongan society with more exposure to European ways, he wrote: “It is a matter of great doubt [that Tongans] would be much improved by copying the examples of their instructors.”