"Exhibiting You" - Story

Patsy Mink: Ahead of the Majority

By: Kimberlee Bassford
Submitted: 02/18/2008

Although I had grown up in Hawai‘i, Patsy's home state, I was shocked to learn that she was the first woman of color in the U.S. Congress and the co-author of Title IX, the landmark legislation that granted equal educational opportunities for women and something that I directly benefited from as a female graduate student.I remember thinking -- what else didn't I know about her?  Why weren't her achievements better known?  Two years later, I decided to make a documentary film, Ahead of the Majority, to help bring her story to a national audience.

Patsy Mink was ahead of the majority in so many ways.  She was the first female student body president and valedictorian in her high school in 1944.  Later, she was the only woman in her graduating class at the University of Chicago Law School.  When she first got involved in politics in the early 1950s, there were few women-and even fewer minority women-in politics in Hawai'i or nationally.  As a Japanese American woman, she had to battle sexism within her own Hawai'i Democratic Party, which was dominated by Japanese American males.  

But for her, it was the discrimination women faced in higher education that struck a chord.  She herself had been denied admission to medical school because she was a woman.  Years later when it was her daughter's turn to apply to college, she learned that quotas still existed limiting women's admission. 

In 1972, Patsy and Congresswoman Edith Green of Oregon co-authored Title IX, which prohibited sex discrimination in educational institutions receiving federal funds.  Today when we hear about Title IX, we immediately think of athletics.  But Patsy's real intention for the law was to open up academic opportunities for women.  She wanted women to be able to go to college, graduate school and professional school.  The fact that Title IX also expanded women's athletics was just the icing on the cake.

The same year that Title IX passed, Patsy got on the ballot in the Oregon Democratic Presidential Primary.  A group of anti-war activists upset that none of the leading presidential candidates at the time were addressing the Vietnam War approached Patsy and offered to collect enough signatures for her to be placed on the ballot.  Patsy accepted.  She was frustrated with the Nixon administration and wanted an opportunity to address the war nationally. 

The Hawai'i Democratic Party, however, did not support her candidacy.  Back home people were saying:  What is she doing?  Who does she think she is?  In so many ways, Patsy was years ahead of mainstream thinking.

As a documentary filmmaker, I can disseminate a message to a large audience.  My hope is that through Patsy's story, Ahead of the Majority can demonstrate that politics doesn't always have to be about power.  For Patsy, the purpose of government was to right the wrongs of society and to make life better for the people.  Patsy exemplified what I wish was the true goal of all our politicians - to serve the public good.

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