Saturday, January 17, 2009

Make Mine Mink

Thanks to the folks at PETA, mink has become a dirty word. It wasn't always like that, you know.  Believe it or not, there was once a time when celebrities would be photographed in their mink coats as they posed to board an airplane. There was a time when a mink "chubby" was a prized fashion accessory.  And who can forget Vivian Blaine's performance in Guys and Dolls when, as the leader of the Hot Box Girls, she sang the famous "Take Back Your Mink" number:

For some filmgoers, any mention of "mink" invokes visions of that staple of John Waters films, the one and only Mink Stole (shown here in one of her best scenes opposite Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom):

But how quickly would you link "mink" to the fact that women now form more than 50% of the graduating classes of America's schools of law and medicine?  Or that today's high school and college women have a much greater chance to compete in athletics? Or that women's sports teams (such as the Lady Vols)  now boast such a devoted following?

If you're familiar with the career of the late Congresswoman Patsy Mink from Hawaii, you'd know that the first woman of color to become a member of Congress was one of the driving forces behind Title IX legislation. Indeed, the Women's Educational Equity Act, known as Title IX, led to tremendous growth in women's college athletics programs. The language of Title IX specifically 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."
All this and more is covered in a thrilling new documentary entitled Patsy Mink: Ahead Of The Majority that will be shown in March at San Francisco's Asian American Film Festival. The film could not come at a more opportune moment, as America inaugurates its first multiracial President who is, coincidentally, a native of Hawaii. When morons like former beauty pageant runner-up Sarah Palin claim credit for breaking through the glass ceiling of sexism, they really need to take a giant step backward and examine the career of Patsy Mink before inserting both feet into their mouths.

Born on a sugar plantation, Patsy Takemoto grew up on Maui and graduated from her high school as the class valedictorian. After graduating from college with degrees in zoology and chemistry, she decided to pursue a career in medicine.  But, in 1948, none of the 20 medical schools to which she applied would accept applications from women. 

When she transferred from the University of Hawaii to the University of Nebraska she was forced to live in a segregated dormitory with the "colored" students. After Mink led a crusade against the University's stance on segregated housing, the school reversed its policy.

While attending the University of Chicago Law School (from which she obtained her Juris Doctor degree in 1951) she was forced to live in the dorm for "international students" because  -- even though Hawaii was only an American territory at the time and not yet our 50th state -- the admissions staff did not understand that Hawaiians were considered to be American citizens.

Upon returning home (where she became the first Asian American female to be admitted to Hawaii's legal Bar),  Mink quickly discovered that Hawaii's law firms were run by a group of older white men who did not want her to be part of their "club." They simply would not hire her. When she opened her own private law practice, Patsy Mink became the first Japanese American woman attorney in Hawaii. 

In 1956, when she was elected to the Hawaiian Territorial Legislature, she became the first Asian American woman elected to public office in Hawaii. In 1957, Mink authored Hawaii's "equal pay for equal work" law, which became national law six years later. In 1958, she was elected to the Hawaii Senate.

She was always breaking new ground.  In 1965 (at age 37), Mink became the first Asian American woman to be elected to Congress. In 1972, she became the first Asian American to seek the Democratic Presidential nomination. Mink was one of the earliest and most vociferous opponents of the Vietnam war in Congress. Her trip to Paris to talk to participants in the Vietnam War peace talks (along with her fellow Congresswoman, Rep. Bella Abzug of New York) rocked political and diplomatic circles.  Mink and Abzug had a lot in common -- the two women became powerful figures who helped to bring feminist causes to mainstream America. 

From 1965-1977,  Mink was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Hawaii's First Congressional District.  In 1971 she introduced the nation's first comprehensive Early Childhood Education Act which, although passed by Congress, was vetoed by President Richard Nixon.

President Jimmy Carter appointed her to be his Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs. From 1991-2002 she was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Hawaii's Second Congressional District. 

Having run in 22 elections (more than any other Hawaiian), Patsy Mink holds the record as the only Hawaiian politican to have served at the county, territorial, state and Federal levels. When she died on September 28, 2002 at the age of 74, President Bush ordered all flags to be flown at half staff in honor of Congresswoman Mink's contributions toward the equal rights of Americans. 

At the time of her death Franklin Odo, Director of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program noted that “Patsy Mink offers a phenomenal political story, because she was so outside what you would expect of a woman, of a Japanese American and of a member of Congress. She was truly a force of nature.”  

Speaking at Congresswoman Mink's funeral, Nancy Pelosi stated that "Patsy left such a legacy. Title IX, which opened locker room doors for women, simply would not have happened without Patsy's leadership. With a twinkle in her eye and a smile, Patsy worked her magic and changed our country."

On October 29, 2002, President Bush renamed the Title IX Amendment of the Higher Education Act as The Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act.  A week later, on November 5, 2002, Representative Patsy Mink was posthumously reelected to Congress.

She was that kind of a woman.

Throughout Kimberlee Bassford's documentary one gets a strong sense of Patsy Mink's feistiness and unwillingness to take "no" for an answer. The film also includes some rare footage of one of the old Matson liners departing from Hawaii and a poignant clip of Richard Gephardt describing what it was like to get into an argument with Patsy Mink.

It's easy to understand why this tiny totem of liberalism was sometimes called "Patsy Pink" and, to this day, is still resented by male athletic coaches who feel they have been robbed of funds that must be shared with their school's female teams.  Patsy Mink: Ahead Of The Majority should be required viewing for people like Governor Palin, members of P.U.M.A., and diehard fans of Hillary Clinton.

* * * * * * * *

Even though he is being feted with a special tribute at this year's Berlin and Beyond Film Festival, as the subject of a documentary, filmmaker Wim Wenders is no match for Patsy Mink. Marcel Wehn's documentary, One Who Set Forth: Wim Wenders' Early Years, is dutifully reverential and astonishingly -- almost mind-numbingly -- dull. 

A lot of this has to do with Wenders' personality (or lack thereof). Although some of his past wives, loves, and close professional colleagues discuss how Wenders' work speaks to loneliness and the difficulty of communication, what comes through is a picture of a man who says little, choosing to express himself primarily through his work as a photographer and filmmaker.

As a result, in moments that sound like confessions from a Co-Dependents Anonymous meeting, the women in Wenders' life are quick to discuss the many ways in which they were able to intuit what he was thinking -- or how he probably processed some thoughts. None of the men seem to share that kind of fascination or even interest. To them, Wenders is just another man who only speaks when he has something he needs to say. They seem quite content not to have any contact with him for years on end and then pick up the conversation when necessary.

Whereas a politician like Patsy Mink is constantly articulating, refreshing, and vocalizing her goals as she works to convince others to join in her efforts to achieve those goals, photographers and filmmakers often process their thoughts more internally.

Much more internally.

As a result, their work speaks for them instead of their personalities. Wenders strikes me as one of those artists whose process is extremely internal -- the kind whose creativity works like a crock pot (as opposed to a crackpot). These people are slow cookers, who let thoughts, ideas, and their artistic vision simmer over longer periods of time than most people can tolerate. The final product may be stunning, but getting there is often a long and lonely process of introspection. His film legacy includes Kings of the Road (1976), Paris, Texas (1984), Wings of Desire (1987), Buena Vista Social Club (1999) and, most recently, Palermo Shooting (2008).

No collection of talking heads or old photos will raise people like Wim Wenders to a dramatic level of interest that could ever match the eternal flame that burns within someone like Patsy Mink. That's just not what they're about. However, their art -- like Patsy Mink's legislative legacy -- lives on, touching the lives of millions they could never know on a personal basis.

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