Q and A

Local documentarian takes a look at a legend

For a leader of unforgettable energy and commitment, Patsy Takemoto Mink has perhaps not yet been remembered as fully as she should be. The former Hawai’i Congresswoman’s legacy is defined by her singular contribution to the sweeping gender-equity legislation known as Title IX, and she was a longtime champion of traditional Democratic causes. Now local filmmaker Kimberlee Bassford has tried to capture Mink’s story in a new documentary. Honolulu Weekly caught up with Bassford as she prepared for an upcoming screening.

How did you decide to do this film?

I was at the University of California–Berkeley in 2002 studying documentary film and working on Cheerleader when Patsy Mink passed away. I just began reading about her life story online, that she was the first woman of color to serve in the Congress, that she had been instrumental in the enactment of Title IX.

Had you known that before?

No, I hadn’t, which is amazing. I knew about Title IX, obviously, but I had no idea she was a co-author. She was instrumental in passing legislation that had a huge impact on my life.

In your own life?

Yes. I was in grad school at the time, and Title IX was intended as an academic program. It allowed women equal opportunity to get in to graduate school, law school and medical school. That was the real intent–most people think of it as athletic, but Mink’s intention was to further academic opportunities for women. So I just thought, “Here I am in grad school, and this person was responsible for helping me to get here through something she did 30 years ago.”

I really had an emotional reaction to her story. The more I dug and the more I learned about what she went through, the more emotionally connected I felt to it. I was offended by the discrimination she felt and inspired by the actions she took. I was interested and I thought other people might be too, so I felt it would make a good story.

What kinds of discrimination did she face?

She always wanted to be a doctor, ever since she was a little girl growing up on a Maui plantation. She was valedictorian of Maui High, she went to college and did a pre-med program. She applied to more than a dozen medical schools and didn’t get into a single one, because she was a woman. She ended up trying to find a job using her pre-med background, but couldn’t find anything. Eventually she took a job as a typist. In those days, if you were a woman, you could be a typist. So she ended up applying to law school and attended the University of Chicago. But even then, none of the Chicago firms would hire her. She was a woman, a married woman with a child, and that didn’t fly. She moved home to Hawai’i and was told that here, she couldn’t even sit for the bar exam, because at that time married women were considered residents of the same state of her husband, and John Mink was a resident of Pennsylvania at that time.

And that’s kind of why she became involved in politics. She couldn’t get hired at any law firms here either, so she opened up her own practice, but she wasn’t very busy, and she got swept up in the Democratic movement of the 1960s and thought, “Maybe this is where I can make a difference.”

Where did the funding come from?

I fundraised for two years before we began production. We met with [daughter] Gwendolyn and John Mink in 2004. I had just moved back to Hawai’i and her story kept popping up. I asked them if they were supportive of the project, and they said yes, and I started raising money. The first funds were from the Hawai’i Council for the Humanities. The biggest grant was from the State of Hawai’i, and I have funding from a couple of PBS-related entities, including the Center for Asian American Media. And then mostly family members and individuals. One donor I got was Billy Jean King, She’s a huge Title IX advocate. I was in Washington in February 2006, doing research at the Library of Congress. It happened to be National Girls and Women in Sports Day. There were all these people at the Capitol lobbying and I just walked up to her and told her I was doing this film, and she said, “Oh, I loved Patsy Mink.” So she was my highest-profile donor.

The [film is intended for a] national PBS broadcast.

Is there a national broadcast set?

I just submitted it last month to national PBS and am waiting to hear back. My hope is that it will air nationally sometime in 2009.

Patsy Mink is not quite as well-remembered as one might expect. Why do you think that is?

She wasn’t the kind of person who tooted her own horn. She was much more focused on the issues. She wasn’t very self-promoting, in a way that kind of hurt her. If she had been a little more that way, maybe she would have won the Senate race (in 1990). For the national media she was so far off the radar because she was a woman of color from Hawai’i. Also, she wasn’t really part of the Hawai’i Democratic Leadership. Back in the [former Gov. John] Burns days, she was kind of on the outs with that faction, and they manuevered against her a little bit. She always wasn’t really warm in her interviews. It’s probably a little bit of everything. But she’s certainly not well known.

Whatever happened to the effort to rename Title IX after Mink?

It has been renamed for her. Congress passed it and Bush signed it in to law, but of course everyone still refers to it as Title IX. [Gwendolyn] Mink just told me the Congress has just passed a fellowship in her name.

Did you learn anything about Mink that surprised you? What was she like on a personal level?

She was really funny. When you talk to people who worked with her and with her family, they often talk about her laugh. She had a great laugh. She could also be very charming, she could get people to do things with a smile and a wink. But also that she was tough and hard-working, she read her own letters and drafted her own responses to letters. She could use her charm and was respected by Republican members, because they knew whatever she was saying came from very grounded places. Even later on, after Congress became more partisan, people still had a lot of respect for her. Her cousin told me a story that when she came back to the House in 1990, doors opened for her and everyone knew her name and was glad to see her back. She was very at home there.

Dole Theater, Sat 10/18, 3pm, $10. Local broadcast on KHET, Thu 10/30, 8:30pm.