“It is easy enough to vote right and be consistently with the majority. But it is more often more important to be ahead of the majority—and this means being willing to cut the first furrow in the ground and stand alone for a while if necessary.” – Patsy Mink
The term “trailblazer” gets thrown around a lot, to the point where it’s become a cliche. But there is no more apt or succinct description of Patsy Takemoto Mink.
The first woman of color elected to the United States House of Representatives, Mink—who was born in Paia in 1927 and graduated from Maui High School—worked tirelessly for decades to promote gender equality. Her most enduring and impactful accomplishment is Title IX, the landmark legislation that prohibits gender discrimination—famously in youth and collegiate athletics, but also in admissions, educational opportunities, and a host of other areas.
Mink served as Assistant Secretary of State for Ocean and International, Environmental and Scientific Affairs under President Jimmy Carter. She was an early opponent of the Vietnam War. As a legislator, she fought passionately for paid maternity leave and affordable child care.
In 2014, 12 years after her death at age 74, President Barack Obama awarded Mink the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“Every girl in Little League, every woman playing college sports, and every parent, including Michelle and myself, who watches their daughter on a field or in the classroom, is forever grateful to the late Patsy Takemoto Mink,” Obama said at the time.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Title IX and the release of “Fierce and Fearless,” a biography co-authored by Judy Tzu-Chun Wu, a professor of Asian American studies at UC Irvine, and Patsy’s daughter, Gwendolyn Mink.
“Title IX is her most visible legacy, but there are layers,” Gwendolyn (who goes by Wendy) told Maui Times. “That includes an integrity that was unshakable over the course of her public service, the incredible courage to take a stand.”
Patsy was excluded from male-dominated medical schools—her early life goal was to become a doctor—and rejected by several top-tier law schools (she ultimately earned her law degree from the University of Chicago in 1951). Those experiences, Wu said, motivated her to spearhead Title IX.
“A lot of people associate sports with Title IX, but it really encompasses the entirety of educational institutions,” Wu told Maui Times. “It’s about scholarships, facilities, employment. It goes so much beyond sports, although sports are sort of the glamor result.”
Title IX faced its share of pushback from various institutions, including set-in-their-ways college coaches and athletic directors who balked at the thought of giving girls the same athletic opportunities as boys.
What would Patsy—known by Congressional colleagues for being outspoken but respectful—think of today’s…stratified political culture?
“I won’t speak for her, but I think there would be a level of revulsion,” said Wendy. “That said, it’s not like there weren’t rancid political actors and speakers in the 1960s or before that. During the heyday of civil rights legislative innovation there were haters who were right-wing Southern racists who would get up on the floor of the House and say terrible things.”
It’s a good thing there was no Twitter in those days.
‘We Have to Be Vigilant’
Wu said she recently spoke to a classroom of elementary school children, roughly half of whom were girls. She asked if they’d ever heard of Patsy Mink or Title IX. No hands went up.
“It’s a reminder that we have to be vigilant, that these laws and victories don’t simply stay forever unless we remember how important they are,” said Wu. She was speaking about her experience in that classroom, but also indirectly answering a question about the recently leaked draft Supreme Court opinion regarding overturning Roe v. Wade.
Addressing it more directly, Wu shared this: “When she was expecting her child, Patsy was subjected to a medical experiment.”
While she was pregnant with Wendy, Mink was given DES, a synthetic hormone that had shown promise in protecting against miscarriage. Mink didn’t consent to be part of the experiment, conducted in 1951 and 1952 at the University of Chicago. In 1977, Mink and two other women filed suit after it was found DES led to vaginal and cervical cancer in a small but significant percentage of women who took the hormone—and their daughters.
“This idea of being able to have control over your body, that you have bodily integrity—as a woman, it’s something that was deeply personal for Patsy,” said Wu. “She advocated for other women as a broad political principle, but it was also something that reflected her own experiences.”
On June 21, Wu will appear in person and Wendy via Zoom at an event promoting their book and honoring Patsy, hosted by the American Association of University Women.
How should people remember Patsy, 20 years after her passing? As a champion of females on the ballfield and in the classroom? As an anti-war and civil rights icon? An environmentalist? And, yes, a trailblazer?
“I hope when people think of her, they think of her in varied ways,” said Wendy. “She brought issues to the table that hadn’t been thought about or talked about as legitimate. Her leadership in those respects—raising the question of child care in the 1960s. Talking about the issue of racism in our war in Vietnam. She was incredibly bold, but not rash. She’s an exemplar of civic engagement.”
Judy Tzu-Chun Wu and Gwendolyn Mink will discuss “Fierce and Fearless,” their biography of Patsy Mink, on Tuesday, June 21 at 10:30 a.m. at UH Maui College, Room 144, ʻIke Leʻa Building on the UHMC campus in Kahului. For more information, contact AAUW Maui President Pat Gotschalk at email@example.com or call 808-707-2001.