Patsy Mink

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–The untimely death of Congresswoman Patsy Mink of Hawaii is generating intensified efforts to protect her legacy, the landmark Title IX law that prohibits discrimination against women in education.

The Bush administration has hinted it wants to weaken the 1972 law, perhaps by regulatory changes, with some athletic directors and wrestling coaches saying that equitable funding for sports hurts men and that most women don’t want to play anyway.

Millions of women and girls do play sports today, thanks to Title IX. Mink’s death Sept. 28 became the catalyst for media assessments of the past two decades of dramatically expanded "space" for women as a result of that law, well beyond sports. Obituaries compared the incredible before-and-after growth of women in math and science, in the law and in law enforcement, in medicine and in business, and in academia itself. Many obituaries credited the constant vigilance by Mink and others that made the rhetoric about educational equity become a reality.

"She changed the course of history–and how many people can we say that about?" said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat.

An Oct. 16 tribute to Patsy Takemoto Mink, sponsored by the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues, became a rally to carry on the fight.

"You want to remember Patsy? Let’s say our words of tribute today and then go forth and save Title IX," said Eleanor Holmes Norton, a delegate from the District of Columbia who said Mink "was a relentless, committed progressive with a consistent philosophy . . . If you needed educational equality, needed a hand up to get out of poverty, wanted peace rather than war, Patsy was your woman."

Mink Battled Through a Lifetime of Bias

Rep. Judy Biggert, the Republican co-chair of the caucus from Illinois and a former soccer coach of her daughter’s high school team, said she and Mink shared a "dedication to women and girls in sports, to Title IX," which she said helped teach girls "the values of teamwork" and gave girls self-confidence.

Many speakers talked of Mink’s passion in broadening the playing field. They also talked of her stubbornness in pursuing that fight.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the second-ranked House Democratic leader, told the standing-room only crowd about the time Mink led a delegation of congresswomen to the Senate floor during a debate on a civil rights law. "One of the senators said to us, ‘Women! Get up against the wall and be quiet!’ Can you imagine?" Pelosi said. She instinctively inched closer to the wall, but Mink said loudly, "I’m not moving one inch."

Mink had first-hand experience with sexism and racism as a Japanese-American woman. She didn’t get bitter; she got even. When one door closed, she pushed another one open and often was the woman and Asian American to walk through it. After graduating from the University of Hawaii, she planned to study medicine. When the top dozen medical schools turned her down (with one telling her "we don’t take women into our medical school"), she studied law at the University of Chicago.

Then came another blow, recalled California Democratic Rep. Robert Matsui: The Hawaii bar refused to admit her because its rules said a woman had to take her husband’s residency–and her husband John still was a resident of Pennsylvania. She challenged the rule and became the first Asian American woman admitted to the bar the Hawaii, in 1953.

Then she found that law firms wouldn’t hire a woman. She formed her own practice and got into politics, first in the state legislature and then with election to Congress in 1964, where she was the first woman of color, four years before African American Shirley Chisholm of New York.

Even as she and Rep. Edith Green, an Oregon Democrat, worked on Title IX, sexism hit close to home: Stanford refused entry to her daughter Gwendolyn, saying there already were enough women in the next class. (Gwendolyn Mink is now a professor at Smith College.)

Bernice Sandler, another godmother of Title IX, says Mink also should be credited for driving through a companion law, the Women’s Educational Equity Act, which funneled money to researchers and educators to prepare for the new influx of women into male-dominated fields, including math and science. History textbooks at the time scarcely mentioned women beyond their fight to get the vote. The funds provided by the Women’s Educational Equity Act bill helped fill in the blanks. The law is still on the books, although President Reagan lopped off the presidential advisory council after its pioneering studies of sexual harassment on campus. The Women’s Educational Equity Act Equity Resource Center in Newton, Mass., maintains the invaluable catalogue of key gender-equity material from the early 1970s.

Title IX Always a Hot Button

Title IX, however, was always the hot button. It had such enormous impact because of the penalties: An educational institution lost its federal funding if any of its programs or activities discriminated by gender.

Critics first attempted to eliminate revenue-producing sports from the law. Mink beat them back. When Rep. Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican and now the House speaker, petitioned the General Accounting Office to investigate one alleged Title IX abuse after another, Mink asked the General Accounting Office to look at the broader picture, about how gender-segregated jobs were being opened to both women and men.

When Reagan’s legal chiefs backed a narrow interpretation of Title IX and the Supreme Court endorsed its view, thereby exempting major parts of educational institutions from the law, Mink was a major strategist on how to overturn that ruling. It took four years, but in 1988 Congress passed the Civil Rights Restoration Act.

Now there is another concerted attempt to weaken Title IX. Earlier this year, Mink spearheaded a campaign by the 50-group National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education to petition Attorney General John Ashcroft and the education secretary to leave Title IX alone.

Currently, a commission is conducting hearings across the nation asking how Title IX should be reevaluated and asking such whether Title IX increased opportunities for women and men. The commission is to submit a written report to the U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige by Jan. 31.

Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center, said "people need to contact the White House to tell them not to change Title IX. And they need to push their elected House and Senate members to speak out about this."

Peggy Simpson is a veteran reporter who covered the 1970s-1980s women’s political movement. She recently returned to Washington after a decade in Central-Eastern Europe, covering the economic-political transition after the fall of communism.



For more information:

Also see Women’s Enews, August 25, 2002:
"Panel on Title IX May Debate How to Measure Equity":

National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education:

The Women’s Educational Equity Act (WEEA) Equity Resource Center: