Patsy Mink: Ahead of the Majority

October 12, 2009

PatsyMink

It’s not too often that I get to attend an Asian American-related event in Tucson. Yesterday, I got the opportunity to watch a screening of the documentary Patsy Mink: Ahead of the Majority and attend a Q&A with filmmaker Kimberlee Bassford, afterwards. The screening was sponsored by several local feminist progresive groups, and proceeds from the event went towards funding female progressive candidates in the next election cycle.

As you can imagine, Patsy Mink is one of my all-time heroes. Mink was the first woman of colour (let alone the first Asian American woman) to be elected to the House of Representatives, and is among the feminist movement’s most influential figures for  being the principal author of Title IX, which established equality for women in academics and sports. Quite simply, Title IX states:

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… 

Ahead of the Majority is a thorough documentary that follows Mink’s rise through the political ranks in Hawai’i to her election as congresswoman when she lobbied to pass Title IX, and finally to the end of her life in 2002.

 

From the documentary, I learned quite a bit about Mink’s legacy that I didn’t previously know. For example, I had no idea Mink ran for president in Oregon on an anti-Vietnam War platform in 1972. Though she only garnered 2% of the vote in the Oregon primary (her candidacy was a political anti-war statement), Mink is the first Asian-American to run for president of the United States of America.

I was also struck by how often racism and sexism placed obstacles in front of Mink, and how she powered through each and every challenge without ever appearing defeated or weakened. When Hawai’i first achieved statehood in 1959, Mink and fellow politico Daniel Inouye ran for House of Representatives and Senate respectively. The documentary noted how Mink and Inouye initially hoped to both be elected and to work together in Washington D.C .to represent Hawai’i. However, Democratic party leaders in Hawai’i pressured Inouye to drop out of the Senate race a month before the election and challenge Mink for Congressman. Already a popular political figure in Hawai’i, Inouye ran essentially on the platform that voters should choose a man, not a woman, as their representative — and Mink lost the seat overwhelmingly.

Mink ran again in 1965 and was finally elected to the House of Representatives, where she ultimately served 6 terms and worked tirelessly to author and pass Title IX. Mink was an outspoken advocate for women, children, and the poor, and the documentary includes many clips of Mink speaking passionately on these issues in interviews and on the floor of the House.

In 1976, after serving as a Congressman for 11 years, Mink gave up her seat to run for Senate. Again, her opponent, Spark Matsunaga, launched character attacks against Mink  causing her to eventually lose the race. Returning to Honolulu, Mink was elected to City Council. After failed races for Mayor and Governor of Hawai’i, Mink again ran for her House of Representatives seat in 1990, winning on a platform of experience and dedication. She won in a landslide victory, and returned to Washington where she advocated tirelessly on behalf of poor people and women until her death in 2002.

Ahead of the Majority is eye-opening and well-researched; no easy task for filmmaker Kimberlee Bassford considering no full-length biography of Patsy Mink has ever been written. And it is this one simple fact that is perhaps most striking about Ahead of the Majority. After viewing this film, I couln’t help but wonder: Why is it that we remember Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, Shirley Chisholm, and feminist theorists like Gloria Steinam and Andrea Dworkin, but most people are unaware of Patsy Mink and her legacy? Why has her story been ignored for so long by biographers, filmmakers, and modern historians?

As an Asian American and as a feminist, Patsy Mink is the quintessential role model. As alluded to by Ahead of the Majority‘s tagline, Mink would not be defeated by oppression and discrimination: rather, she changed the rules. The documentary notes that in the less than fifty years since the passage of Title IX, the number of higher education degrees awarded to women went from roughly 7% to almost 50%. It is amazing to realize that a woman like Mink, who did so much to forward the cause of women’s rights, was an Asian American and a feminist — her lasting legacy to the Asian American community is that we, too, can aspire to be more than society would limit us to be. We can and should be fighters for the equality that all people (regardless of gender, class, colour or creed) are deserving of. We, too, are part of America.

Unfortunately, even after her death, inklings of the racism and discrimination that Mink faced during her political career remain apparent. Although Mink was a strong feminist figure, she faced endless sexism and racism throughout her life. The film opens with a clip from the Mike Douglas show, where Patsy Mink, then a sitting U.S. Congressman, is asked to dance the hula with a girl clad in a Hawai’ian grass skirt — no male sitting Congressman would be expected to do something so kitschy and degrading, both then and now. The documentary also includes a newspaper headline reporting Mink’s election to the House of Representatives; it reads: “Pert and Pretty Patsy Mink Also Has A Lot of Serious Ideas” — diminishing her status as a newly-elected member of the U.S. House of Representatives to little more than a novelty. And, time and again throughout Mink’s life, the Democratic Party of Hawai’i preferentially awarded opportunities to “haoles” despite the dedication that Asian American politicians like Mink (and Inouye) showed to the party.

And while it would be nice to hope that the kind of racism and sexism that Mink faced in her lifetime had decreased, I was appalled by some of the general ignorance I witnessed during the event’s Q&A. As if unable to grasp the fact that Mink was a Japanese American woman, some in yesterday’s audience seemed unable to consider Mink anything but Japanese. With no mention made of Mink’s religion in any part of the film, audience members were convinced that Mink — based purely on her Japanese ancestry — must be a devout Buddhist (because all Japanese people are Buddhist, right?). One audience member asked Bassford whether, in her research, she uncovered evidence that Mink was Buddhist. Bassford replied, clear as day, that while Mink’s grandparents were Buddhist, Mink was not devoutly religious. However, Bassford added, Mink was likely Christian, not Buddhist.

Not five minutes later, a second person raised their hand and asked whether, outside of the public burial and memorial service held for Mink after her death, there was a private, Buddhist ceremony. 

Cue eyeroll.

It was this generally awkward (mis)treatment of Mink’s racial identity that I encountered while attending the event. Event organizers touted the film entirely from a feminist perspective and only to Tucson’s feminist community, practically ignoring her place in Asian American history. Consequently, outside of myself and one or two others, there were no Asian/Asian Americans to attend yesterday’s screening of Ahead of the Majority. When Electroman questioned event organizers as to why there didn’t seem to be any representatives of Tucson’s Asian American community participating in the event, he was told that organizers didn’t know where to find politicized Asian Americans in this town. While the documentary fairly addressed Mink’s relationship with her racial identity, it felt as if event organizers weren’t sure how to honour Patsy Mink as not just a feminist figure, but as a feminist of colour.

That being said, the conflict between feminism and racial activism reared its head even in Mink’s life. One audience member asked during the Q&A whether Bassford intended to make such a starry-eyed tribute to Mink’s career, or whether she had deliberately excluded criticisms of Mink. Bassford said that, in general, it was hard to find things to criticize about Mink; yet, despite my general hero worship of Mink, I think she can be fairly criticized on her lack of interest in helping to elevate other Asian Americans to elected office, or in championing Asian American issues. Unlike her colleagues, including Senator Daniel Inouye (who comes out somewhat like a villain in the documentary), Mink focused on women’s issues and poverty during her political career, and did little to encourage other Asian Americans to become more politically educated. Since Patsy Mink’s time as a Congressman, the number of women in elected positions has increased dramatically, yet there still remain only a handful of Asian Americans in higher office. As Bassford put it when I asked her about Mink’s lack of involvement in Asian American politics, she replied that while Mink is considered a role model for Asian Americans, she is not considered one of our political leaders.

Bassford hits on an important point: many of the Asian American community’s political leaders are men (Councilman and current candidate for NYC comptroller John C. Liu, Senator Daniel Inouye, and Senator Daniel Akaka to name just a few). Why was it that Patsy Mink, a woman who faced so much racism in her life, and who clearly considered herself an Asian American, did not include the Asian American community as one of her political priorities? And does this abject underrepresentation of Asian American women amongst the leadership roles of our community result in a lack of attention given to Asian American feminist concerns?

A woman came up to me after the event and asked me about my question regarding Patsy Mink and the Asian American community. I suggested that many feminists of colour often face sexism within their racial communities (and racism within the feminist community) that often leads to ostracization. Despite Professor Gary Okihiro’s appropriation of the phrase “when and where I enter” to describe the critical importance of eliminating sexism within the Asian American community to achieve equality for all Asian Americans, in our community as well as in other communities of colour, male leaders often emphasize an expectation that women should act in a supporting role to elevate male community leaders, rather than to seek prominence or equality themselves. Feminist issues are frequently seen as distractions from the struggle for racial equality, and too often, sexist attacks are lobbed against empowered feminists of colour from both within and outside the community when those feminists speak out against intraracial sexism.

But that should not be the status quo. After watching Ahead of the Majority and witnessing the passion with which Mink challenged injustice, I wish some of her incredible energy had been used to specifically help the Asian American community. Compared to the emphasis Mink placed on sexism and women’s rights, Mink rarely spoke about the racism she encountered as an Asian American. And while Mink’s contribution towards women’s rights  in this country cannot be denied, the Asian American community needs Asian American political leaders who are willing to break the silence regarding Asian American issues of all kinds, including gender issues.

To that end, Patsy Mink is an amazing pioneer. She is an example to the Asian American community that we can (and should) make a difference. But Mink can certainly be criticized for the lack of attention she paid to Asian American issues, and I hope that from her life, we can remember that while Mink’s accomplishments cannot be overstated, there is much more work still left to be done. I hope that we can learn to be inclusive of feminist concerns within the Asian American community, and reduce the mistrust that seems to exist between Asian American race activists and Asian American feminists.

And above all, I hope that we can take inspiration from Patsy Mink’s story to encourage more young Asian Americans to enter into politics — so that they, too, can change the rules for the better.

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  • liz

    Right one. I recall coming across awkwardness between her and Daniel Inouye when researching Mink for my paper on Asian American women in politics, which focused on her.

    Also… thank you for saying something I was afraid to point out in my middle school essay – Mink was more of a champion for women’s rights than APIA rights… awww! I knew this writing the paper, and I could not articulate it as well as I did… so I didn’t. I just focused on the other AA and colored politicians that followed her.

  • liz

    Right on. I recall coming across awkwardness between her and Daniel Inouye when researching Mink for my paper on Asian American women in politics, which focused on her.

    Also… thank you for saying something I was afraid to point out in my middle school essay – Mink was more of a champion for women’s rights than APIA rights… awww! I knew this writing the paper, and I could not articulate it as well as I did… so I didn’t. I just focused on the other AA and colored politicians that followed her.

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