Unchartered Territory: Women in Politics

Unchartered Territory: Women in Politics

By Alisa Samadani, A&E Editor Originally published in Issue 10, Volume 33 of The University Register on March 26, 2021

On Saturday, March 13, UMN Morris hosted a full day film festival celebrating Women’s History Month. The event was held via Zoom from 1 to 6:30 p.m. Multiple documentaries were featured, with roughly 15minutes in between for a quick bathroom break.

The first film was “Patsy Mink: Ahead of The Majority.” This was produced by the Center for Asian Films, PBS, and Making Waves films. The film, which was roughly an hour long, featured a beautifully filmed documentary voiced by Patsy Mink, the nation’s first woman of color in Congress. She was born in Maui and “had no patience for injustice and no patience for intolerance.” She ran for President and wrote laws that broke down decades of oppression against women and people of color. In 1965, Mink became the first woman of color ever in Congress and she sparked much curiosity about her not being of Caucasian background.

The documentary also highlighted how people saw gender roles in those days, and how people inquired about Mink’s life as a woman, as an islander. “ A lot of my personality is based on the fact that I am from the country.” Mink cared a lot about her roots and the community she grew up in. Where she grew up in Hawaii, her ethnicity was the majority. Her father worked as a land surveyor, one of few Japanese men on a typically Caucasian line of work. The day after Mink turned 14, Pearl Harbor drove the country into World War II. She learned that many Japanese people were being sent to internment camps, including her japanese language teacher and their family. This horrified her. She focused on working to become a doctor, and in 1947, studied at the University of Nebraska. Upon arriving, she was assigned to the international dormitory. Confused, she asked the staff, and the college told her that “coloreds” were not allowed to live in the regular dormitories. She rebutted by writing the college paper, and she was triumphant in changing this policy the next year. However, when working to apply to medical schools, she was rejected for being a woman interested in becoming a doctor. At the University of Chicago, Mink was one of two women in a class of 90 students. She worked in the law library, working odd jobs to rake in funds. This was also the time when she married a fellow student, John, and had a baby girl, Gwendolyn.

Throughout her journey, Mink faced many challenges as a woman of color, until she met the democrat Jack Burns, and soon ran as representative of the fifth district. Mink pushed for equal pay and nurturing Hawaii’s schools. Colleagues became confused and rattled with her demands and stubborn nature. Some even called her “cantankerous.” Lobbying for Hawaii’s statehood included the same man who inspired her, Jack Burns. Jack Burns’ protege and Mink wanted to run, but one month before the election, Burns had his protege run against Mink for a seat in the United States House of Representatives, to try making room for elders to run for a seat instead. Mink lost, but she stayed strong and pushed for more rights, her loyal husband always supporting her as campaign manager and confidant. She won the election to the state senate, but always sought for a position in national office, running again in 1964. Through dedicated campaigning, she finally won. The 60s was a quiet period, until the United States joined the Vietnam War, and Mink had strong opinions about the country interfering. She worried that American strategic interests overshadowed Vietnamese people’s lives. She spoke out in the House, and pleaded for us to leave. Mink’s opinions made waves, and many grew tired of her attitude towards the war. She left to speak to the North Vietnamese prime minister, in order to collect information. This further outraged people, including in the 1972 Oregon presidential primary, where she only garnered 2 percent of the votes.

Mink pushed countless policies into law, most notably co-authoring and advocating for the Title IX Amendment of the Higher Education Act.

I highly recommend reading more about Mink’s accomplishments in and out of office. She was a remarkable woman in history who should continue to be celebrated, no matter what month it may be, Women’s History Month or otherwise.

The second film, Chisholm ‘72 - Unbought and Unbossed, features the life of Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman to serve in Congress, as well as run for president in 1972. This documentary talked less about upbringing and backstory, instead centered around the single most powerful political event in 1972: a black woman running for President. Chisholm was West Indian, whose mother was born in Barbados. She grew up in, and was very active in, New York. From civil rights to voting rights, she fought for everyone to have a say in politics. Although she won a seat in the House, she was not well supported by other members in office. A powerful speaker, she riled up communities and inspired many to take the helm of activism for African American rights, women’s rights, and less restrictions on women of color. With literature from Maya Angelou and Shirley Chisholm coming out, the issue began to boil over. From her battles against Richard Nixon, to the aftermath of her efforts in educating those who would hear her out, those who witnessed her words firsthand were awestruck by her drive for real change in a divided nation, working to pull both sides together while neither side wanted to speak for her cause. It was not what she was able to do, but more so what she said, and how loudly her voice rang through the nation. “I want to be remembered as a woman…who dared to be a catalyst of change.”

After the second film, we heard from Sam Fellers, the coordinator of the day’s film fest. She shared some videos of Native American women in politics. Deb Haaland ran for Congress in 2019. More and more attention was being pulled into Deb’s path to Congress, moving Native Americans, particularly Native American women, further into the circle of policymakers.

The last documentary was about the life of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The film, “On The Basis of Sex,” details how this first generation American Jewish woman rose up as a pop culture icon. From her first trek into Cornell University, then to Harvard, finally transferring to Columbia Law School, as well as her numerous accomplishments in litigation, advocacy, and her ongoing battle with cancer up until her death (not mentioned in the film) in September of 2020. I cannot stress this enough: the late Justice Ginsburg was tough as nails and never went down without a fight. She advocated for women, but most of all, she advocated for equality. The film focuses specifically on her case in 1972, Moritz v. Commissioner, when a man was denied a deduction in caregiver tax due to his gender, however she had also advocated for male widows, as well as female widows in a case in 1975, Weisenberger v. Wiesenfeld.

Around 6:30 p.m., the viewing portion of the film festival concluded, and participants were able to discuss their thoughts on the numerous films. I admit, it was difficult to find the right words for each woman in history, as they all sacrificed so much for today’s society to have the laws and policies that we have now. I highly encourage any and all readers to do your research on these women, as well as other influential females in history. Just because it was not taught in school, does not mean that it should be ignored or dismissed. Educate the public, and celebrate the accomplishments of strong women past and present!

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