On April 30, 1970, at a meeting of the Committee on National Priorities of the Democratic National Committee, Mink exhorted the party to “give the cause of women’s rights the highest priority it deserved.”
In response, committee member Edgar F. Berman, a close friend of former vice president Hubert H. Humphrey and his personal physician, immediately tried to put Mink in her place. Out of the blue, he declared that women weren’t qualified to be president because of menstruation and menopause — transforming Mink’s request for attention to women’s rights into an attack on all women. “Suppose we had a president in the White House, a menopausal woman president who had to make the decision of the Bay of Pigs … or the Russian contretemps with Cuba at the time,” he said.
Mink protested formally to Humphrey, one of the most powerful politicians in the country and the failed Democratic candidate for president in 1968. She called Berman a “bigot” and requested he be removed from the committee: “I am certain you will be appalled at Dr. Berman’s disgusting performance in which he displayed the basest sort of prejudice against women, characterizing us as mentally incapable to govern, let alone aspire to equality, because we are psychologically inferior.”
Mink argued biological statements about women’s inferiority were just as “indefensible and astonishing as those who still believe, let alone dare state, that the Negro is psychologically inferior.” Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.), the first African American woman in Congress, who had arrived in 1969 four years after Mink, backed her up, as did Gloria Steinem and other women.
But Humphrey refused to get involved and instead simply forwarded Mink’s letter to Berman. Berman, in response, dug in even further, arguing the tone of her letter further exemplified her “raging hormonal imbalance.” He referred to her objections as “this little contretemps” and made a joke about their “male-order relationship.” When the New York Times called, Berman piled it higher and deeper, arguing it was “safer to entrust a male pilot’s reactions and judgments in a difficult in-flight or landing problem than to even a slightly pregnant female pilot.”
The Times followed its report with an additional story titled “Discrimination Conceded,” which reinforced that Berman was far from unusual in his dismissal of women. Secretary of Labor James D. Hodgson had admitted to a delegation from women’s organizations that discrimination against women was “subtle and pervasive,” but the Labor Department “would not take any immediate action to combat it.”
While perhaps laughable today, Berman’s views were all too serious. And men in power routinely trivialized women’s search for equality, as in the case of both Humphrey and Hodgson, or mocked it, as did the Time magazine headline on the story: “The Sexes: Hormones in the White House” — which made it sound as if Mink’s initial request, and Berman’s response, were a fun little spat in an amusing “battle of the sexes” out of a cartoon series.
Berman’s pronouncements sent a loud and clear message: A woman could not be president because she menstruated. Periods were to be mocked, and women who sought equality were comically insane.
It’s easy, today, to file this story away as evidence of the “progress” that women have made in the years since. Much has changed with women’s place in politics over the past 50 years. In 1970, there were only 10 female members of Congress out of 435, and one senator. Now it’s 101 congresswomen and 26 senators. But a quarter isn’t anywhere near equality. And of course we still don’t have a female president.
Yoho’s comments toward Ocasio-Cortez make it very clear that, despite women’s greater representation in government, women still face pervasive sexism and gender inequality. When he called Ocasio-Cortez “crazy” and “out of her mind” because he didn’t like her politics, he was harking back to Berman’s narrative that a political woman who dares to speak up is constitutionally insane.
It’s not just one crank. President Trump treats Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and other African American women with especially aggressive contempt. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), to ensure her full powers are equal to a man’s, has to play symbolic politics — in the way she enters a room, with her dramatic white coat or her display of a prominent gold pin representing her speakership — while her white male equivalents are simply granted those powers by their peers and don’t have to perform power in the same way.
Patsy Mink, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Maxine Waters or Nancy Pelosi, was herself no passive victim. She was a ferocious tough cookie, fighting for women’s equality and against the Vietnam War, along with a host of other issues. She served in Congress from 1965 to 1977 and again from 1990 until she died suddenly in 2002, at age 74. She is most famous as the legislative champion of Title IX, which in 1972 banned gender discrimination by higher education institutions funded by the federal government.
Mink’s legacy of fearless empowerment was alive and well when Ocasio-Cortez took to the floor of the House to deliver what has been described as “the most important feminist speech in a generation” in response to Yoho. In a long crimson blazer, she eloquently named battles that women face and displayed her skill at waging them. “This issue is not about one incident,” she declared. “It is cultural. It is a culture of a lack of impunity, of acceptance of violence and violent language against women, an entire structure of power that supports that.”
I asked Gwendolyn Mink, Patsy’s daughter, about the incident, and she turned the story back around: “As we approach the centennial of woman’s suffrage, let’s celebrate the women of color who so often have taken the lead in publicly calling out and taking down misogynist roadblocks to equality for all women.”
Only with a far more profound empowerment of all women, and with men taking full, serious responsibility for fighting both sexism and racism, can we begin to move toward the equality that Mink was asking for in 1970. Meekly staying home with our hormones isn’t going to do it.