New book explores the trailblazing life of Hawaiʻi politician and Title IX champion Patsy Mink
"Fierce and Fearless: Patsy Takemoto Mink, First Woman of Color in Congress" is the title of a new biography out this month. The Conversation learned more about the book from her daughter Gwendolyn "Wendy" Mink, as well as co-author and historian Judy Tzu-Chun Wu. The book follows her life as a Japanese American from Hawaiʻi, a local and national politician, and a champion of Title IX — the law of the land for education equity. She died in 2002.
GWENDOLYN MINK: The book was a pretty long time in the making. Probably concretely, I started sort of puttering around the rather massive collection of her papers that are housed at the Library of Congress around 2007, 2008. I started to work a little more systematically, maybe around 2010, 2011. So I was sort of on my way to try to figure out how to tell her story in a biography. But I kept running up against sort of a problem of not being entirely certain about what voice to use in the narrative. And by that, I mean, using the voice of a daughter, making it more of a kind of memoir, or using the voice of a political scientist, which is what I'm trying to do. Suddenly, a gift from the universe landed in Washington, D.C., and her name was Judy Wu. And we got together and exchanged ideas and developed an intellectual relationship. And that was about 2012. And so for the past 10 years, we've been collaborating, working together on this project that culminated in the book
CATHERINE CRUZ, HOST: Judy, what was it like working on this? Because there's just so much information and you want to pay homage to all that she's achieved and what she's done for women.
JUDY TZU-CHUN WU: Oh, it's been an honor to be able to write about her life. I had known of Patsy Mink, but I was looking for a project to work on. And I discovered the Library of Congress website, they were featuring her papers. And as a historian, it's always exciting to know that there's archival material. But I didn't realize how much materials there were. There were about 2,700 boxes. So it's a little bit daunting. But it's been wonderful to be able to collaborate with Wendy. I would go to Washington, D.C., look in the archives, and she lives just down the street. So I would go to her place afterwards and talk to her and she would say, "Oh this is what was going on in our lives. And this is what was happening." And so I so appreciate those conversations. I literally was planning to interview her. And we did do a series of interviews. But when I found out that her mother wanted Wendy to write her biography, I just thought that we needed to collaborate. And so it's been a fantastic experience to be able to be in partnership together, but also have our distinct voices. Each of the chapters begins with a really moving and powerful vignette from Wendy. And then I get to do the historical analysis. And it's been really helpful to have her perspective on what I'm writing so that I can do justice to Patsy Mink.
CRUZ: Wendy, do you have a favorite chapter in the book?
MINK: My favorite part depends on my mood and the alignment of the stars from day to day. But I do frequently come back to a chapter that deals with my mother's work, her national service in the aftermath of losing the 1976 Senate race. She goes to the State Department as an Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and Scientific Affairs, and after an interesting but brief experience there, goes on to become president of the Americans for Democratic Action. And Judy does a wonderful job juxtaposing the challenge of working within a very brittle and rigid bureaucracy, the State Department, and then working with grassroots progressive politics in the ADA. And the result is a fascinating story of sort of two sides of the American political process, really, if you want to step back and look at the big picture. So most of the time, I ended up sort of landing on that chapter as my favorite.
CRUZ: Your mother gave great speeches. I covered her as a city hall reporter when she returned from D.C. and was a councilmember. I remember just being in awe of her after doing all this great work in the nation's capital, coming back home, but still being very passionate about what she believed in. I remember covering her speeches when she led the recall for the three Honolulu City Councilmen who switched parties — and was just so amazed that she just figured, you know, this was wrong, and she was just going to make sure that the right thing was done. Do you have any favorite speeches?
MINK: There were so many that were very provocative and evocative. I remember some of her commencement addresses at high schools like Roosevelt High School, Kaimuki High School, or whatever, in the 1960s during the height of the Vietnam War. I don't remember the language of it, particularly at this moment, but I do remember being moved, listening to her. Sometimes she had to give those speeches, long-distance over the telephone because of events that were transpiring on the East Coast. I think one she had to do at Kaimuki High School, maybe, because Robert Kennedy was assassinated and she wanted to attend his funeral services. So she called into Kaimuki and they piped her over the loudspeaker. I remember those speeches.
WU: She was such an amazing speech giver. When I look at film clips, she's so passionate, articulate. And I was just talking about this earlier in the week — she wrote out longhand her speeches. When I draft something, I bullet point, or I use a computer, but she wrote out in complete sentences, pretty much the final form on pads. I think overall, I just love her spirit. Catherine, what you described is exactly right. One of the speeches, that's the name of Kimberlee Bassford's documentary about Patsy Mink, is entitled "Ahead of the Majority." And she talks about the need for political courage, that you can't wait for issues to be popular before you support them, that you have to take a stand. And I think that is something that persists throughout her life. I think she also, in addition to being a political leader, she was really interested in educating other people to become active citizens. We quote from her last speech about Title IX, which was given on the 30th anniversary of Title IX, she talks about how this is one of the greatest achievements of her political career. But she also emphasized that it's not just a one and done process, that after you pass a law, there's the effort to maintain the law, to maintain the spirit of creating change and working toward social justice. And so that all of us have to be vigilant. We can't just take these opportunities for granted. And I also really love the period that you're describing when you covered her. And that was one of my big surprises. I knew more of her legislative achievements when she was in the House of Representatives from '65 to '77 and 1990 to 2002. But that period of her life when she was in between these terms of service, I was just so blown away by the fact that she was just as committed, just as vocal on the Honolulu City Council as she was in the halls of Congress. She was remarkably consistent in her commitment towards transparency and democracy, creating equal opportunities. She's someone who I think we can learn so much from and look up to.
CRUZ: When I pass by the statue there across from Honolulu Hale, it's there in front of the Hawaiʻi State Library, it is really delightful to see people discover it, and to read the plaque and to pause and reflect on what she's done for Title IX. And today we're still grappling with these issues. You hear of the women's water polo team that can't get in the pool and have to do land exercises because they don't have equal time. The girls don't have locker facilities like the boys do. We're still dealing with that here in Hawaiʻi, even after all this time has passed. Wendy, do you want to chime in here about the progress that we have made? And we still have far to go?
MINK: Right. I mean, there's evidence of great strides in the expansion of women's athletic activities and the expansion in the numbers of women in law schools and medical schools — and the very slow, but moving in the right direction, integration of the workplace in what used to be referred to as men's jobs and that sort of thing, as a result of gender equity and skills training, or attempt to enforce that. But there are so many ways in which lack of equity pervades the educational experience that my mother's call for vigilance in 2002 on the 30th anniversary remains the call that we need to remember today. I applaud the student-athletes, the students interested in sports who have raised the issue in the State of Hawaiʻi schools. The same issues are being raised across the country by girls who are trying to pursue athletic activities. Similar issues that affect equity are being raised across the country with sexual harassment in the educational process. Collateral issues are being raised for pregnant and parenting students. And so there's still lots of manifestations of inequality, lots of roadblocks to equity in the schools. But we do have Title IX, which is a powerful lever for redressing those problems. The issue really is that everybody needs to know that Title IX is out there, everybody needs to know how to access its potential in pursuing complaints and raising issues and the like. And we need to enforce the pledge of equity in education for everyone equally at all levels of schooling.
CRUZ: One of my favorite stories is you had mentioned that you wanted to run for class president when you were young. And I think a teacher had said, "Oh, you know, maybe you should run for vice president."
MINK: That was in second grade. I wanted to run for the classroom president. The teacher wanted to, I guess, have us all participate in a civic exercise or something like that. So we were having candidates run for office and I wanted to run for classroom president. I was a little mini-me, I was emulating my mother and so forth as a candidate. And the teacher told me that I couldn't because a boy wanted to be the president and he should be the one who got to be elected — and that I should be his vice president.
The 50th anniversary of Title IX is on June 23, 2022. This interview aired on The Conversation on May 6, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.