Two 1951 Law School alumni—a former congresswoman who championed Title IX and trampled gender and racial barriers, and a former Mandel Clinic director who served in all three branches of government—were among 19 men and women Monday who were named to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
The late Patsy Takemoto Mink, a 12-term U.S. Representative from Hawaii who was the first woman of color elected to Congress, and Abner J. Mikva, a former federal judge, congressman, and White House counsel who later directed the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic, were among a high-profile group that included Tom Brokaw, Meryl Streep, Stephen Sondheim, and Ethel Kennedy. The award is given to “individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” The medals will be presented at the White House on November 24.
“We are tremendously proud that President Obama has recognized the contributions of these two extraordinary individuals, whose tireless devotion to public service, equality, and justice exemplifies ideals the Law School holds dear,” said Dean Michael H. Schill, the Harry N. Wyatt Professor of Law. “Patsy and Ab, classmates in the Law School’s illustrious class of 1951, are true examples of civic leadership. They are exceedingly worthy of this prestigious honor.”
Mink, who died in 2002 at age 74, was a passionate intellect whose career was sprinkled with “onlys” and “firsts” and defined by her steadfast refusal to succumb to discrimination. She was the first girl to serve as president of her high school’s student body, the only woman of color in her Law School class, and the first Asian-American woman to practice law in Hawaii. When law firms in Chicago and Hawaii refused to hire her, she opened a law practice in Hawaii. She was the first woman elected to Congress from Hawaii and began serving in 1965. She also was the Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.
As a legislator, Mink fought injustice by introducing or sponsoring the first federal childcare bill and bills establishing bilingual education, student loans, special education, and Head Start.
She is best known, however, for co-authoring and defending the landmark Title IX Amendment of the Higher Education Act, which prohibits gender discrimination in federally funded schools, guaranteeing woman equality in both academics and sports. In 2002, Congress renamed the amendment the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act.
Mikva, 88, who retired from the Law School as senior director of the clinic in 2008, was a five-term congressman for Illinois, Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, and White House counsel for President Bill Clinton. He also served as an Illinois state legislator and a law professor at Northwestern University and the University of Illinois. At the University of Chicago Law School, he taught a course in legislative process. He is the 2014 recipient of the University of Chicago's Benton Medal for Distinguished Public Service.
He was a founding member of the American Constitution Society and continues to serve on its Board of Advisors, and he and his wife founded the Mikva Challenge, a civic leadership program for Chicago youth. In November 2004, he was an international election monitor of Ukraine's contested presidential election, and in July 2006 he was named chair of the Illinois Human Rights Commission. He was cochairman of the Constitution Project's bipartisan Constitutional Amendments Committee.
Mikva, who graduate cum laude from the Law School and was editor-in-chief of the Law Review, has received the Thurgood Marshall Award from the American Bar Association and the Paul H. Douglas Ethics in Government Award from the University of Illinois.
In a White House statement announcing the medal recipients, President Obama referred to the honorees as “bold” and “inspiring.”
“From activists who fought for change to artists who explored the furthest reaches of our imagination; from scientists who kept America on the cutting edge to public servants who help write new chapters in our American story, these citizens have made extraordinary contributions to our country and the world,” Obama said.