WASHINGTON — Fifty years ago today, President Richard Nixon signed into law Title IX, which sought to end sexual discrimination against women in education, particularly athletics.

The bill was pushed through Congress by U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink, of Hawaii, and has since become a lasting part of her legacy while touching the lives of millions of women throughout the U.S.

Mink, who was the first woman of color elected to Congress, died in office in 2002 at the age of 74. In 2014, Mink’s daughter, Gwendolyn, accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom on behalf of her mother from President Barack Obama, who said that the Hawaii congresswoman “represented the best of public service and the Aloha spirit.”

ACLU Presser Patsy Mink state fronting the State of Hawaii Library1.
A statue of Patsy Mink, who helped enact Title IX, was erected in Hawaii in 2018. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

“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. “I am particularly grateful because she was my congresswoman for a long time.”

Gwendolyn Mink has since published, “Fierce and Fearless: Patsy Takemoto Mink, First Woman of Color in Congress,” a book about her mother’s life in politics with Judy Tzu-Chun Wu, a professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Irvine.

Mink herself was a professor of politics at the University of California, Santa Cruz and a professor of women and gender studies at Smith College in Massachusetts.

In an interview with Civil Beat, Mink described the many struggles her mother faced while navigating a political world dominated by men and the ways she worked to overcome those obstacles to become one of the nation’s most iconic — if not always well known — politicians.

She said that although Title IX is being celebrated today, it could face challenges in the future, particularly from those on the right who have been successful in attacking other bedrocks in women’s rights, namely Roe v. Wade.

“We always have to be on guard about Title IX,” Mink said. “It was never a one and done kind of situation. Title IX can always be reversed.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What compelled you to write a book about your mother?

I think my mother decided shortly after I published my first book, which was an academic book, that I would be a good person to write her biography. So for 20 years or so I kind of knew in the back of my mind that that was going to be a project that I would eventually take on, although not necessarily to write it but to make sure that it got written.

She was particularly concerned that a lot of the struggles that she had witnessed, that she had participated in, would be forgotten by history, not so much that she would be forgotten, but the struggle would be forgotten. It was very important to keep that storytelling alive, not only because it’s a track record of what has been tried before, but because it also could be inspiration to future generations about how to proceed towards the kinds of goals that she cared about, like peace and social justice and inclusion and equality.

When she passed away, my father and I were approached by the Library of Congress to donate her papers, which we did. It took them several years to process the papers and once that whole situation had shaken out there was an organized series of a million documents — basically 2,700 boxes worth of material — that I could start going through. It became clear to me that there was certainly a book length biography to be written. But I had a hard time sort of coming to a decision about how I would do that myself.

On the one hand, one of the benefits of having somebody who knew her so well write the biography is that you have this first person voice. But on the other hand, I’m a trained scholar, and I write in the third person, and I write with a sort of distance and dispassion.

Melding those two contradictory impulses was a challenge, and fortunately along the way as I was dealing with that sort of push and pull of memoir-ish versus scholarly writing, I met the person who would become my co-author, a historian who I did not know before this, Judy Tzu-Chun Wu. She independently had developed a plan to write a biography on my mother and we connected and decided to collaborate.

Q: Your mother is well known for her work passing Title IX, but what were some of the other struggles your mother didn’t want people to forget?

We had a word count, so we couldn’t write about everything that we wanted to write about. There’s a chapter on her anti war activities during Vietnam, and there’s a chapter on her participation in the emergent women’s rights movement in the 1960s and ’70s, and there’s a chapter on her work on the environment. Those are all spheres of struggle that she witnessed or participated in that she did not want lost to history.

The nuclear testing in the Pacific in the 1950s, the struggles against that and the coercive power of the government in trying to suppress those protests. She didn’t want that to be erased.

Gwendolyn Mink, left, with her mother at the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1993. Submitted: Gwendolyn Mink/1993

The ways in which multiple actors in different corners of the polity articulated their opposition to the war in Vietnam, she didn’t want that to be forgotten. She didn’t want it to be just a military history or just a protest in the street history. She thought it was incredibly more richly textured than that, and she wanted those struggles to be documented.

Similarly, the activism that she was part of with respect to women’s equality and with respect to social policy innovations that recognized women both as public citizens but also as the bearers of the second day, the domestic work and so forth, that crystallized in her promotion of early childhood education and day care, which she began to work on in the late 1960s and almost succeeded in accomplishing except that Richard Nixon vetoed legislation in December of 1971.

She just didn’t want the vantage point of the people who were central in the struggle to be lost in history. She didn’t want those moments of a policy imagination and political imagination to be lost to future generations.

Q: Did you learn anything new or surprising during your research for the book?

I get asked that question all the time and I really don’t have a satisfying answer that satisfies the person who asks the question.

I think it’s partly a reflection of the fact that I’ve been working in the materials for so long that everything is familiar. But also as I try to think back on any sort of moments of revelation or surprise that I experienced along the way, I really honestly have to say not really except in the period of her life in which I was preconscious.

There was the stuff that went on about her inability to initially get a law license, because she was married to a haole from Pennsylvania. The granular detail and, really, horror of that particular struggle was a little bit new to me, but not totally new. That happened in 1953 when I was not even 1 year old. But once we got to a point where I can remember anything, you know, from a bus ride to a political rally, I had a sense of everything that went on and so nothing in a big way surprised me.

We talked about everything as it was happening. Also, I was an extremely nosy child. When I heard my mother and father talking I would eavesdrop on their conversations, process the information and then participate the next time the subject came up. So the combination of being nosy, being wired for politics myself and being an only child meant that I witnessed or discussed almost everything that was going on.

Q: Title IX is now 50 years old. How should we look at the law today?

I don’t think that the forces of support and advocacy for Title IX could have predicted in 1972 the scale of change and the impact that Title IX would have on society as a whole and in opening opportunities for women and girls. But they knew that they were creating an important lever for girls and women who underwent discrimination or had doors shut before them because they were female.

Title IX would provide a lever for them to challenge that discrimination and subordination.

Most of the advocates were intent on making sure that the equality language — the 37 words that ban discrimination on the basis of sex in educational institutions that receive federal funds — would be as comprehensive as possible, that there wouldn’t be ways to fashion loopholes or exit strategies for bastions of male power and activity in educational institutions. So that was a powerful motivating force.

I have to say Title IX was enacted without too much controversy. The initial controversy erupted after it was enacted, when pockets of male privilege discovered that they would be affected by this new promise of equity by the federal government, and the principal bastion of that male privilege was men’s athletics.

Q: So do you think we need to worry about Title IX today? Are there any ways in which it is being undermined that concern you?

Title IX has been attacked throughout its history. In the 1980s, it was attacked. In fact, it had to be reaffirmed by legislative action in the late 1980s after the Supreme Court pretty much gutted Title IX in a case called Grove City College v. Bell.

In that situation, the issue was whether discrimination in one corner of an educational institution would impair access to federal funds for the entire institution. Obviously, if you localize the punishment to the one corner of the university in which the discrimination has been found, and the rest of the institution goes scot free it significantly weakens the promise of equality to only those pockets where women have been able to mount challenges that have been validated by higher authorities.

The late U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink in 1970 testifying against Supreme Court nominee G. Harrold Carswell. Submitted: Gwendolyn Mink/1970

The court kneecapped Title IX in the Grove City College v. Bell case and a couple years later the Congress had to enact the Civil Rights Restoration Act, which made it clear that Title IX applied to whole institutions, that no part of an institution was the sole bearer of responsibility for equality, that whole institutions were being held accountable.

In the 1990s, there were all kinds of challenges about athletics. The myth began in the 1990s that men’s sports were losing out because of Title IX so you had to fight against that.

When George Bush became president there were all sorts of efforts to change the way in which the athletic equity rights of girls and women would be calculated. There’s too much detail to go into, but there were big fights about that too.

And then of course with Donald Trump we had the rewriting of regulations with respect to sexual harassment and sexual assault, especially that undercut all the advances that had been made toward giving sexual assault and sexual harassment victims, mostly female, the right to vindication when they were victimized inside education institutions.

So, yes, we always have to be on guard about Title IX. It was never a one and done kind of situation. Title IX can always be reversed. I have no doubt in my mind that if U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, a Republican from Ohio, was in charge of the world, he would repeal Title IX. You always have to be on guard about that possibility just like you have to be on guard about the reversal of Roe v. Wade with respect to abortion rights.

Q: Your mother has been credited with helping pave the path for Roe v. Wade when she opposed the nomination of Harold Carswell to the U.S. Supreme Court, which resulted in Harry Blackmun, the author of Roe, being appointed instead. If she were alive today, what would she think of the court’s draft decision overturning Roe?

I’m sort of uncomfortable speaking for her in contexts that she did not live through. However, I can say that with every appointment of a woman justice, my mother was very pleased. She was thrilled when Ruth Bader Ginsburg was appointed to the court.

What would she think of the draft opinion? I think that she would be horrified. I mean, I’m violating my own policy of not reading her views into contemporary issues, but I think that we sort of knew all along what the arguments were going to be against Roe, that were chipping away at Roe all along since 1973.

We saw the trajectory culminate in an extremely dangerous supreme court challenge in 1992 when the court ultimately upheld Roe v. Wade but seriously weakened it in Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

When we’re talking about what the judges are doing now, they are really pulling the rug out from under Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which in turn, while reaffirming Roe, circumscribed the rights that were available to women by changing the trimester system to really a pre- and post-liability system.

All of those things were part of struggles that she lived through and that, in retrospect, we can see as part of an onward march of anti-choice opposition up to this moment where they think they’re going to be able to celebrate the undoing of women’s bodily sovereignty.

Q: Do you feel that your mother’s legacy gets the attention it deserves?

She doesn’t get the attention she deserves, but you can’t force feed people somebody else’s legacy. I can only hope that when people are talking about her, when there are books and documentaries and so forth out there in circulation for people to watch, that it will light a flashbulb in some people’s minds about what they can aspire to, or how to think about politics or what a socially just agenda would look like and that they’ll build consciousness.

But I don’t want to get into the business of saying so and so didn’t pay enough attention to her.

Part of the challenge of teaching history the right way — which is being attacked by so many people on the other side of the political spectrum — is to get the stories out there of the heroic work of people of color, of women, of anybody who’s been on the margin, to tell those stories so that they are in wide circulation so that people have this treasure trove of human courage to dig from, to plot their own contributions for humanity going forward.

Q: What do you think your mother would think of today’s political landscape and, if she were alive and in Congress today, how do you think she would respond to what’s happening in our country?

I think she’d be doing more of the same. The attack on democracy in our current moment is over the top and probably nothing she had ever before seen.

But there were experiences in the ’60s and early ’70s in which people were encouraged to stand up and to decide what the framework for defending democracy needed to be and she was there for those struggles. I’m sure that she would transpose many of those efforts into the current moment.

They are the same things that people are talking about now: the rule of law, the necessity of defending a constitutional structure, the importance of affirming Congress’s right to ask questions to oversee other aspects of the government, the importance of strengthening voting rights to guarantee participation in the process.

The dynamics of the contemporary situation are somewhat different in that we’re living in a technological age where people can be vituperative in public in a way that they were less able to in the olden days.

And we live in a time where it’s hard to consistently count on political courage. I think that she would be pulling for people to stand up and stand firm as the Jan. 6 committee seems to be doing.

Q: So then what do you think of the state of the union?

Oh, gosh. I think that the state of the union is fragile. I think that we’re very vulnerable. Our institutions are vulnerable. The effectiveness of our Constitution is vulnerable to all kinds of forces of division and corrupt intent. On the other hand, there’s also a lot of political energy out there that is being harnessed by different forces over different issues, whether it’s the climate or gun regulation or women’s rights and the like.

That gives me hope that mobilizations of the people who are the target of the anti-Democrats will ultimately prevail. But it will be a long struggle and everybody needs to keep on keeping on in the course of that struggle.

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