Young women weaving in women's house, circa 1920, TTPI photo archive.
The women’s house on small “outer” islands and atolls of the Caroline Islands (present day Micronesia and Palau) was a special place of refuge and meeting. Visits were primarily dictated by the menstrual cycle - and the accompanying cultural limits the cycle placed on women’s activities - but the house also served as a proverbial “village pump” for camaraderie and communication among the island’s women.
The Spanish priests of the Japanese period worked to expand the participation of women in masses and daily prayers, and to this end convinced the chiefs to greatly loosen the rules regulating segregation during menstruation. Traditionally, women could not go out to gatherings or work in the community (during menstruation) and this ensured that the women’s house was an isolated locale for regular periods of rest and retreat. Men were never allowed entrance, and the house was built at a 90-degree angle to all other buildings on the island. It was common for women, married or not, to sleep there on a semi-regular basis. The house was also used as a place of seclusion (from men) during child birth.
The community work of re-thatching a traditional women's house
Presently, the women’s house on Falalop Ulithi is only unlocked and open for the Women’s Association’s formal monthly meetings and school board conferences. The women’s houses on Asor, Mogmog, and Federai Ulithi remain open (and often occupied) all the time, though probably not to the extent they once were. Rarely does a married woman spend the night there, even when she is menstruating. It remains common for younger unmarried women to spend the night, and for women visiting from other islands to sleep there if they do not have close female relatives to co-habit with. Contemporary use of the women’s house is more wide-spread on islands and atolls further to the east of Ulithi, such as Wooleai, Ifaluk, and Eauripik.
To learn more about the role about Women’s Houses you may want to check out the works of Francis Hezel and William Alkire (see our 10 Great Books About Micronesia Posting). Also there is page on the Pacific Worlds site with more photos.
For more information on the Outer Islands of Micronesia, and to learn how YOU can help promote an expansion of educational opportunity and accomplishment there, visit www.habele.org.