Authors deliver Eleanor Roosevelt lecture on first Congresswoman of color
Gwendolyn Mink and Prof. Judy Tzu-Chun Wu, are working on a biography of former U.S. Rep. Patsy Takemoto Mink.
Dr. Gwendolyn Mink and Judy Tzu-Chun Wu, a professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California Irvine, delivered the 15th annual Eleanor Roosevelt lecture, entitled “First Woman of Color in Congress: Patsy Takemoto Mink’s Feminist Politics.”
Mink and Wu are collaborating on a biography of Mink’s mother, Patsy Takemoto Mink, a former Democratic representative from Hawaii who, in 1964, was elected the first woman of color to Congress, where she served for 24 years. Their lecture covered the story of Takemoto Mink’s involvement in politics, from her advocacy of equality and social justice to her policy changes.
Mink is an independent scholar in Washington, D.C. and the author and editor of several books, including award winning “Welfare’s End” and “The Wages of Motherhood.” For the past 29 years, she has taught United States equality law, poverty, policy, gender studies and American politics. She was previously on the faculty of the University of California Santa Cruz, and later Smith College.
Wu is also an author, as well as a Chancellor’s Fellow and the director of the Humanities Institute at the University of California, Irvine. According to the introduction from Prof. Yuri Doolan (HIST, WGS), her research focuses on “analyzing interesting social hierarchies such as those based on race, gender, sexuality, and citizenship with a particular focus on how individuals form identities and navigate and protest social inequalities.”
Mink said her mother’s career was “spurred by her own life experience and by her strong sense of solidarity with struggles for peace, civil rights and social justice.” Wu later added that she believes the world view and experiences Takemoto Mink had gained from being from Hawaii contributed to her political visions, describing her advocacy as a “Pacific form of feminism.” Wu explained how Takemoto Mink’s grandparents had immigrated to Hawaii from Japan in the 1890s to work on one of the plantations there. However, even with her grandfather having a college degree, her grandparents were subject to the hierarchical structure and contractual labor of the plantations, and they were treated unfairly for the work they did. Because of this, Wu said, “that system of labor racial inequality was very much embedded in Patsy Mink’s consciousness.”
Mink explained that 1972 was an important year for women in politics, particularly for her mother. “1972 was the first time feminists coalesced to try to gain a foothold in the Democractic Party and try to be a force to be reckoned with in the process of party decisions,” she said. Two women of color, Takemoto Mink and Shirley Chisholm, also ran for president that year. Mink then read from a vignette she wrote entitled “Fear and Loathing in Electoral Politics: Feminism in the Democratic Party 1972,” which discusses her mother’s experiences and values as a woman in politics.
Reading from her vignette, Mink said that during the early 1970s, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was working to increase accessibility and representation in the Democratic Party, and wanted to have, as Mink said, “full and equal electoral participation of people of color, young people and women of all ages and races.” Takemoto Mink was on one of the commissions created to promote that goal. In doing so, the Democratic Party reformed their rules to encourage groups within the party to be more representative, requesting they include members of color, young members and women. This “marked a victory for feminists.”
Discrimination was still an issue, however. Mink said that both she and her mother experienced sexism because the Democratic Party was not open to the idea of “gender parity.” For instance, Gwendolyn Mink served on the Democratic National Committee, but felt she was “a shortcut” to the group fulfilling these diversity requirements since she, alone, filled every demographic. She explained that the committee itself was also held at a Playboy hotel, showing a further lack of respect for women. Also, Takemoto Mink was one of only four women from the Hawaiian party to be chosen for the Miami Beach Convention and was only given a half vote. Furthermore, Mink described the dissapointement for feminists when then-Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern did not support reproductive rights, gay rights or a guaranteed adequate income in his campaign. Despite this, Mink explained, feminist advocates kept pushing for equality.
This advocacy led to the passage of the Equal Rights Act and the Equal Employment Opportunity Act in March 1972, as well as the ratification of Title IX three months later. Takemoto Mink spearheaded the Title IX law, which was later renamed in her honor.
Following Mink’s half of the lecture, Wu discussed Takemoto Mink’s relationship to Eleanor Roosevelt. She explained that Takemoto Mink and Roosevelt shared similar interests, and that Takemoto Mink appreciated how Roosevelt would advocate for issues such as racial and gender equality, describing her as “the people’s ombudsman.”
Wu also discussed intersectionality. In the instance of Prof. Anita Hill’s (WGS) allegations of sexual harassment against then-Judge Clarence Thomas during hearings about his nomination to the Supreme Court, Wu explained the intersectionality of Hill’s identity as an African American woman testifying about sexual harassment. She said Hill was discriminated against, but the courts did not have to rule the case as discrimination because the overlap of racial and gender issues meant there was not, technically, one specific aspect of discrimination. Takemoto Mink advocated against this and Wu said she believed “we need to think about women in complex identities.”
Wu said Takemoto Mink continued to advocate for women’s rights throughout her career: “She’s advocating for the right to vote, advocating for women to be elected and advocating for those issues most relevant to women to be heard.” Wu also explained different approaches to advocacy that Takemoto Mink participated in, such as “Capital Hill feminism” — the idea that women in politics would advocate for women’s rights, using their position as leverage — and “bridge feminism” — or the idea that women’s rights activists would also fight for other equality issues, bridging those issues and feminism together. Wu said Takemoto Mink later sponsored legislation funding the first women’s conference in 1977 and wanted representation for women from all 50 states and six territories.
The lecture concluded with a video entitled “Patsy Mink: Ahead of the Majority,” in which Takemoto Mink was quoted: “Life doesn’t have to be this unfair. It can be better. Maybe not for me, I can’t change the past, but I can certainly help somebody in the future so they don’t have to go through what I did.” The video also said of Takemoto Mink, “She had no patience for injustice and she had no patience for intolerance … and she wrote laws that overturned decades of discrimination against women.”
The Eleanor Roosevelt lecture series is presented by the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department and was co-sponsored this year by the Asian-American and Pacific Studies, History and Politics Departments.
According to the Brandeis website, the lecture series began in 2004 to “honor Eleanor Roosevelt’s commitment to social justice and her important place in women’s history.” Roosevelt served on the Brandeis Board of Trustees from 1949 to 1962, was the Visiting Lecturer of International Relations from 1959 to 1962, gave the first commencement address in 1952 and received an honorary doctorate in Humane Letters in 1954.