Mechelle Voepel

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Mink legacy: Stand up, speak out and be counted

By Mechelle Voepel
Special to

Although Patsy Mink's work on Title IX passage 30 years ago wasn't done with the direct intention of greatly affecting athletics, that outcome was a source of pride for her.

Patsy Mink
In June, she told Cindy Luis of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, "I never anticipated that all this would happen. It was a deep-down wish that it would make a difference at some point.''

Her daughter, Gwendolyn Mink, is acting chair of women's studies at Smith College. Gwendolyn Mink has authored several books, including "Hostile Environment: The Political Betrayal of Sexually Harassed Women,'' "Welfare's End,'' and "The Wages of Motherhood: Inequality in the Welfare State, 1917-1942." With four other women, including Gloria Steinem, she edited "The Reader's Companion to U.S. Women's History.''

She recently talked about both her mother's legacy and her own thoughts on Title IX and women's challenges.

How much did the athletic aspect of Title IX mean to your mother?
"I think she saw the impact on athletics as part of the larger picture, as far as opening up life chances. She herself was a sometime athlete in high school playing basketball. She really could appreciate the opening of horizons that athletic programs gave women. She was very happy about that.

"At the same time, she was concerned that people didn't appreciate Title IX beyond athletics. It was the most visible symbol, but not the only place Title IX had that impact. She was always quick to remind audiences about radical changes in enrollments in law schools and medical schools, too.''

How early were you aware of your mother's work, and how did it affect you?
"I certainly from a very young age, from 4 years old, was aware she had to overcome sexist stereotypes. By 6, I was acutely aware of the presumptions that people would have about her.

"When I was rejected from Stanford (because the school said it already had enough women students), that was a turning point for me. Even though I had a mother who'd gone through so much discrimination, my initial reaction still was that I wasn't a good enough woman to make it in. I took it as a statement of my inadequacies, as opposed to Stanford needing to give fair treatment to everyone. My mother and I talked about that, and it opened my eyes. A lot of young women today still find fault with themselves completely when the obstacles before them very much have to do with the way society treats women.''

What's the biggest difference for young women today as opposed to your experiences or those of your mother's generation?
"They don't necessarily have to cross the first hurdle very early, like out of high school. The abject barriers are fewer. The reality of institutional hostility comes a little bit later for young women today. Not at the point of going to college or choosing a career path, but when actually entering the work force and having to deal with things Title IX alone can't change.''

Is it more important than ever for Title IX supporters to be vigilant now, since there is a movement to make changes to it?
"I think that's definitely the case, there needs to be a lot of public education and awareness of the success and the precariousness of Title IX.

"Again, it's also important to make it clear it's not only about athletics, it's a bellwether. Every incremental effort to weaken Title IX could have bearing on educational rights for girls and women. It could have a drastic impact on the next generation.''

What can people interested in the future of Title IX do?
"It's a multi-step thing. The easiest and first thing to do is write to members of the House and Senate and express your concern about potential attacks and explain how and when Title IX's been so important to you. Mail does matter to them, and ultimately it will be up to them to make any changes to Title IX.

"And there are any number of collective activities that people can be involved in. If you're a college student, make sure they have a Title IX officer on campus and work with that person to broaden and deepen its resonance. We have to carve out a vision of where we go in the future with Title IX. There's lots of work to do.

"My mother was concerned not only about defending Title IX but also moving it into the 21st Century ... and making sure the benefits of Title IX are fully extended to people beyond the middle class and white communities.''

Your mother's work in Congress affected the lives of millions of people. How critical is that message, that one person can make such a difference?
"Absolutely, that's the most important lesson. To stand up, speak out and be counted. To protect things that have value. It's definitely the most important legacy my mother would have wanted to leave.

"But it's also about working consistently in coalitions with others who do care. One or two leaders made a big difference with passing Title IX, but there were legions of people involved in women's athletics who joined hands to stand up together and effect change.''

Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to's women's basketball coverage. She can be reached at

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