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Patsy Mink: Ahead of the Majority

How one filmmaker approached this historic lawmaker.


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Patsy Mink

photo: Courtesy of kimberlee bassford

The late Patsy Mink is a local political legend, the first Asian American woman in the U.S. Congress, and co-author of Title IX, the legislation that gave women equal access to higher education and athletic programs. A new 1-hour documentary charts her life and career, from her small-kid days in Maui to her long career in Washington, D.C. Patsy Mink: Ahead of the Majority debuted at the Hawaii International Film Festival in 2008, but has only recently become available in stores on DVD. We spoke with filmmaker Kimberlee Bassford about her experience in creating the documentary.

Why did you do the film?

I was a graduate student at UC Berkeley when Mink passed away in 2002, but it wasn’t until she died that I realized how much of a trailblazer she was: the first woman of color in Congress. I wondered, Wow, why didn’t I know this? You have this unlikely heroine from a humble Hawaii plantation background. And then to see her go on to change society, through Title IX and her other work. It’s a classic hero story.

You get the sense from the film that Mink was seen as a real radical.

She was, especially for her time. She came out publicly against the Vietnam War before any of the big protests. She had a lot of critics, and she wasn’t even supported by her own party early on. But it seemed as though even those people who butted heads with her had a deep respect for her. They understood that she believed what she was saying, and wasn’t saying it for political gain. It was coming from a real place.

What was the most surprising thing you discovered while making the film?

A lot of people don’t remember that Patsy ran for president in 1972. Before Barack and before Hillary, there was Patsy Mink. And Mink was criticized for it at the time, particularly here in Hawaii. But to me, she exemplified the true public servant.

How much has politics and society changed since Mink began her career?

Patsy was part of the Democratic revolution, and before that you had a one-party, one-ethnicity representation in the Territorial legislature. So it’s become more multicultural, and more people are being represented. But the issues that Patsy Mink was passionate about, whether it’s women’s rights, or immigrants’ rights, or healthcare—these are all things we’re still debating today. Her story is one of progress, but we still have a long way to go.

In a way, Patsy Mink’s story is the story of Hawaii in the 20th century. And I’m hoping it makes people think about what we want in our political leaders.


 

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