Remember Patsy Mink on Title IX’s anniversary

Note: As we mark the 40th anniversary of Title IX, this is an ESPN.com column I wrote in December 2002, honoring the late Patsy Mink. She had recently passed away then. One of the “mothers” of Title IX, Mink is among the people we should always remember to thank when we talk about what Title IX has done for us.

Here’s Patsy Takemoto, a teen-aged girl. She’s extremely bright and ambitious. She’s small of physical stature. She plays some high school basketball … well, the half-court game that they let the girls play.

She lives in a beautiful place, Hawaii, where her grandparents had come to from Japan in the 1800s to be sugar-plantation workers. But it’s not been a pretty world these last few, long years.  She’s been an eyewitness to the carnage at Pearl Harbor, which happened the day after she turned 14. War has raged over the globe, and people like her _ Japanese-Americans _ have been treated like the enemy by both sides in the conflict.

Her patriotism and her optimism, though, are undaunted. Soon, it will be time for the world, shattered in so many places, to begin rebuilding. She’s tiny but strong. It’s 1944. She’s graduated from high school and is eager to begin the next stage of education and step into adult life as a contributor, a healer.

She meets segregation, belittlement, contempt. For her race, for her gender. It’s relentless, mostly unchallenged, thoroughly institutionalized.  Yet she still thinks anything is possible.

But the medical-school application rejections keep piling up … one after another, after another, after another. No one, it seems, wants to teach women to be doctors.  How stupid was this? How unfair? How wasteful? How unproductive?

Look just at this country. All the jobs women had taken on, the talent they’d shown when given opportunity. They’d built planes and ships and tanks. In record time. They’d run businesses and paved roads and fixed cars … and still cooked meals and washed the clothes and kissed their children’s scrapes.   It had become an undeniable fact during World War II. Women really could do anything.

So was that all over when the war ended? Was that no longer necessary?

***

Now here’s Patsy Takemoto Mink, an aspiring attorney. She’s married a man named John Mink, had a daughter named Gwendolyn and gotten a law degree in Chicago when she’d been shut out of medical schools.  She and her family go home to Hawaii, where she has to fight to take the bar exam since technically she is a resident by marriage in her husband’s home state, Pennsylvania.  She wins this battle _ in effect establishing her own identity as a married woman _ then finds no law firms will hire her.

She starts her own firm and gets involved in politics. She’s elected to the Territorial House of Representatives in 1956 and is part of the movement toward Hawaii’s impending statehood, a goal that would be reached in 1959.  After two years in the Hawaii state senate, in 1964 she’s elected to the first of six consecutive terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Gwendolyn can see, by age 4, some of the discrimination that her mother has to deal with. By 6, she is “acutely” aware of it. By adolesence, it’s fully chrystalized for her.

But it’s a different world by the late 1960s and early 1970s, right?  The feminist movement has been gaining steam, barriers are coming down all the time. Even in that “male”‘ preserve, athletics.  A woman named Kathrine Switzer runs the Boston Marathon _ despite attempts to impede her _ in 1967. The first official collegiate basketball tournament for women is held at West Chester State in Pennsylvania in 1969.  Sure, it’s a different world.

Then Gwendolyn, an intense young scholar, gets a rejection notice from Stanford because the school already has “enough” women in her class.

***

Now here’s Congresswoman Patsy Mink. She knows how it works in Washington, D.C.: nothing comes without some compromise. She becomes effective in the system while staying steadfast in her beliefs.  She opposes the Vietnam War, sees education as a constant priority in spending, and advocates help for the people who are the poorest of the poor: women and children.

Opponents refer to her as “Patsy Pink,” their way of branding her a communist. But even the most antagonistic of them have to acknowledge she’s consistent in what she stands for. Maybe they don’t know how the rejections have motivated, not discouraged, her. Nor do they understand her empathy for others is a fuel for always standing up, no matter the opposition.

It’s 1972, and Congresswoman Mink is a member of the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee.  Incidentally, in her home state, the University of Hawaii that year is spending about $1 million on athletics _ just $5,000 of that for women’s club sports. The rest goes to the men.

Mink and another Democratic congresswoman, Edith Green of Oregon, author and co-sponsor Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972. Among its chief advocates in the Senate is Indiana Democrat Birch Bayh.  At the time, Mink and other Title IX supporters are thinking much more of opening and expanding educational opportunities for women. But how Title IX affects women and girls in sports will become a revolutionary part of the latter 20th century.

***

Now here’s the legacy of Patsy Mink.  She’d had her setbacks as a politician, losing both a run for the Senate and for the governorship of Hawaii. But that’s politics: You roll with defeats. She was re-elected to the U.S. House in 1990.  She had helped protect Title IX for almost 30 years. When it was weakened during the Ronald Reagan administration in the 1980s, Mink was one of the strategists who helped it get back its status.

Believing that under the current administration of George W. Bush, Title IX would face its most intense challenges since being enacted, Mink was preparing for the counter-attack.  But she passed away on Sept. 28 at age 74 of complications from pneumonia. After having served 24 years in the U.S. House, she posthumously won re-election in November.

President Bush signed a resolution renaming Title IX the “Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act.”  We’ve given you a chronology of the obstacles and triumphs of Patsy Mink. But it’s only a brief sketch, really. Perhaps you can take time to type her name into a search engine on your computer. You’ll be amazed at the tributes and testimony you’ll find about her.  If you’re a women’s sports participant, coach or fan, you need to do this..

Millions of women and men have benefited from the work that Patsy Mink did for decades.  Women’s basketball has become the standard-bearer among women’s collegiate sports in this country, the one that gets the most funding, attention, praise and criticism.  By Jan. 31, a special commission studying Title IX will make a report to Education Secretary Rod Paige. What may happen in regard to Title IX in the next year should be followed closely.

Patsy Mink spent a lifetime in public service, but her vigilance has ended. Ironically and sadly, it seems she has never been more appreciated than now, when she’s gone.

The Patsy Takemoto Mink story, at its very core, is about how much one human can accomplish in a world of 6 billion, no matter how many obstacles are thrown in her or his way. Regardless of which side you fall on in Title IX debates or election booths, her story should inspire you.

About mvoepel

Mechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women's college basketball and other college sports for ESPN.com.
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