How Congress’ First Woman of Color Helped Craft Title IX

FTitle IX of Education Amendments of 2002 was signed into law fifty years ago. It states that “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” While often associated with sports, Title IX guarantees gender equality well beyond sports, covering all aspects of educational programs including access, scholarships, the treatment of individuals and employment. Title IX provides equal opportunities for girls and women. It also prohibits sex discrimination in terms of the conditions. Title IX, for example, requires that schools prevent and address sexual harassment or sexual assault. It also prohibits discrimination towards pregnant and parenting students. This law is, inarguably, the most significant for girls and women since 1920 when women gained the right to vote.

Congresswoman Patsy Mink was a four-term member of Congress who came from Hawaii in 1972. She played an important role in the development and defense of Title IX. Her work, along with that of collaborators in Congress and allies in the women’s rights community, changed the course of history and enabled generations of girls and women to pursue their interests, goals and dreams. The rise of girls’ and women’s athletics, the movement of women into professions like law and medicine, and the empowerment of women seeking justice against sexual violence and harassment — these and other steps toward gender equality depend on Title IX.

Mink, one of the first feminist legislators brought her lived experiences to Congress. Mink also spoke out for the equality of girls and women on the basis of their collective experiences. Mink knew and appreciated the value of eliminating barriers, long before gender equality was popularized or recognized. She wanted to make it easier for everybody, transform the women who have broken through obstacles from being anomalies into trailblazers and help others.

Patsy Takemoto mink was rejected by more than 12 medical schools for being a woman. She was also discriminated against as a lawyer and advocated for educational reform and gender equality. In 1972, she was named TIME’s Woman of the year.

Courtesy Gwendolyn/Patsy Usemoto Mink papers Library of Congress

Sex discrimination had altered Mink’s path in life, its stubborn norms and rules affecting millions of women to similar effect. Mink dreamed of becoming a doctor since she was just four years old. When all her applications to medical schools were denied, Mink found herself unable to fulfill that dream. Some of them explicitly stated they could not admit her to the school because she is female. Only 4% of medical students at the time were female. Mink switched to law school. Despite law schools being a male-dominated domain, Mink was one of only two Asian Americans to graduate from University of Chicago Law School in 1951.

Despite these credentials, she could not find a job in a traditional law firm—many pointed to the fact that she was a mother and, therefore, assumed she couldn’t handle long hours; others did not like the fact that she was married, presuming her first loyalty and obedience to be to her husband. Mink, frustrated but not discouraged, set up her solo practice. In the 1950s Mink became involved in the territorial Democratic Party of Hawaii. This party gained strength and purpose. Mink was elected to the territorial and state legislatures, which is a rare position for women. Mink was elected the first Hawaii woman to be elected as a congresswoman in 1964. She also became the first Asian American woman and first black woman to serve in Congress. From 1965 to 1977 she served 12 terms, then again in 1990 and 2002.

Mink’s road of “firsts” was paved in Hawaii. Mink, a third-generation Japanese American was born in Hawaii and grew up as a member of a stratified plantation community.

Her family’s Maui beginnings shaped Mink’s worldview and subsequent career. Her grandparents were subject to racialized naturalization laws that designated them forever foreigners, “aliens ineligible for citizenship.” Not until 1952 did Japanese and other Asian immigrants gain naturalization rights to become US citizens. Mink, a U.S. citizen from birth, was deeply affected by the exclusion of her grandparents.

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Entering Congress for the first time in 1965, Mink’s very presence signaled resistance to the gendered nature of political culture, while her convictions brought new issues and perspectives to the policy table. In local politics during the 1950s, Mink had worked to halt nuclear testing, protect labor rights, and advance gender equity through equal-pay-for-equal-work. While bringing these goals to Congress, Mink also advocated for additional goals like universal child care and transparency in government, protection of the environment, equal educational opportunity, and ending Vietnam war.

Mink wasn’t always the only female in the room. In general, but especially regarding feminist policy, Mink served as a political “bridge,” working in tandem with grassroots advocates to effect legislative change. Rachel Pierce coined the phrase “Capitol Hill feminism” to describe how “women on the Hill adopted and adapted the rhetoric, ideological precepts, and policy goals of the women’s movement.” Professor Anastasia Curwood uses the term “bridge feminism” to describe how Mink’s colleague, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, connected the African American civil rights and women’s movements with the grassroots and legislative arenas. Mink partnered with allies both inside and outside Congress to increase the voice of people who are not normally welcome at policy forums. Mink’s partnership with allies in Congress created an ideal setting for Title IX pursuits.

Title IX was the result of Edith Green and Mink’s work to abolish sex discrimination in education. Both had spent many years working on legislation to ensure equal education opportunities for all women. For example, a comprehensive ban on sex/gender discrimination in federally funded programs, including education, was spelled out in Mink’s Women’s Equality bill, which she introduced in the spring of 1970. This bill, as well as Edith Green’s legislative initiatives, took Title VI of the Civil Rights Act as the model. Title VI prohibited discrimination based on race in federally funded programs. In the end, the concept of gender equality in education, couched in the same language as the Civil Rights Act, was wrapped within Congresswoman Green’s omnibus education bill, as a provision eventually known as Title IX.

Title IX was a remarkable feminist accomplishment, but it also had a personal significance. These reforms were demanded by Title IX advocates partly because they had experienced educational exclusion. The radical feminist mantra that “the personal is political” resonated with Title IX advocates who knew well how gender bias in school had circumscribed their own opportunities. Mink’s own educational experiences as a woman of color and a mother contributed to her own identity as a civil rights advocate for women.

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Title IX represented a significant milestone in gender equality for Mink and other feminist activists. Mink noted that Title IX was only as important as its effectiveness, which Mink said in 2002 when she celebrated the 30th anniversary. Title IX’s official title was changed to Patsy T. Mink equal opportunity in education act in 2000, following her death. This fitting tribute foregrounds the pivotal contributions of a woman of color, an Asian American, and a representative from Hawaii in achieving the government’s pledge to promote women’s equality in education. It is our responsibility to guarantee that Title IX goals continue to be achieved 50 years after its creation.

Judy Tzu-Chun Wu is a Professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Irvine and serves on the National Women’s History Museum’s (NWHM) Scholars Advisory Council. Gwendolyn Mink is an independent scholar and political scientist. The book was co-authored by them. Patsy TakemotoMink: First woman of color in Congress.It was published on May 3, 2022.

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