Wilcox, Elsie Hart (1879–1954)

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Wilcox, Elsie Hart (1879–1954)

First woman to serve in the Territory of Hawaii senate . Born on March 22, 1879, in Hanalei, Kauai, Hawaii; died on June 30, 1954, in Hawaii; daughter of Samuel Whitney Wilcox (a businessman) and Emma Washburn (Lyman) Wilcox; graduated from Wellesley College, 1902.

Active in community service, particularly in the area of public education; chair of International Institute of the YWCA (1919); served on Commission on Public Instruction (1920–32); helped organize first Pan-Pacific Women's Conference (1928); elected to Territorial Senate on Republican ticket (1932–40), served on the judiciary committee and as chair of the health and education committee (1937–39); active in Hawaiian Evangelical Association and other community organizations.

Born in 1879 on the island of Kauai, Hawaii, Elsie Hart Wilcox benefited from both inherited wealth and an inherited social consciousness. She was the granddaughter of Congregationalist missionaries to the Hawaiian islands, and part of a family who owned Grove Farm Plantation, a profitable concern that employed many family members. One of six children, Wilcox grew up in the shadow of her uncle, George N. Wilcox, a respected political figure in the Territory of Hawaii, and her own respect for the importance of education eventually motivated her to enter the political realm herself. After attending private schools because there were no English-language schools on Kauai, Wilcox was sent, like her sister Mabel Wilcox , to Wellesley College in New England for her advanced education. She returned to Grove Farm in 1902 after earning her college degree and remained there for the rest of her life.

Beginning in 1920, Wilcox served on Hawaii's Commission of Public Instruction, which set policy for public schools throughout the entire territory. Confronting problems relating both to inadequately trained teachers and to language difficulties resulting from the preponderance of Asian-born children within the territory's public school system, Wilcox was instrumental in increasing funding for "Americanization" programs and other educational activities, while also actively involving herself in public school activities. Her recognition of the political tensions of the early 20th century prompted Wilcox's involvement in several peace organizations. Through her affiliation with the Pan-Pacific Women's Union, she helped set up the first Pan-Pacific Women's Conference which in 1928 boasted Jane Addams of Chicago's Hull House fame as chair and drew a gathering of over 300 delegates from around the world.

In addition to her public service, Wilcox was a lifelong volunteer at the Lihue Union Church, training novice Sunday school teachers and holding a number of church offices. She also extended her efforts to the Hawaiian Evangelical Association which coordinated the Territory's Congregational churches, and she actively supported ongoing missionary work in Asia. Wilcox's interest in the education of children spilled over from her professional life into her volunteer efforts with both the YMCA and YWCA programs on Kauai, where she taught summer-camp classes in astronomy and brought her expertise in areas of finance and public works to bear on budget matters and building expansions. Travel around the world also occupied much of her adult life; a tour to Europe shortly before World War I was augmented by several trips to Asia in the company of her uncle George and sister Mabel.

The high point of Wilcox's life of public service came with her election to the Territorial senate in 1932. In addition to serving on several important committees, she was elected vice-president of the senate in 1935 and continued to push for improved conditions in Hawaii's public schools. Among her goals was the reduction or elimination of the yearly ten dollar fee required to register a child for public school, a charge that made it impossible for many less affluent families to provide their children with a proper education. Serving in the senate for several terms, Wilcox was finally defeated in the 1940 election after several defections from the Republican Party eroded her base of political support. Despite her departure from public life, she remained active in the community around Grove Farm Plantation until her death in 1954.


Peterson, Barbara Bennett, ed. Notable Women of Hawaii. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1984.

Pamela Shelton , freelance writer, Avon, Connecticut

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Wilcox, Elsie Hart (1879–1954)

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