The rise of the Wahine

Text Will Caron

Dean Kaneshiro has always been interested in storytelling. He got his first video camera in 1992 as a gift from his dad and started making home movies on the weekends. For 11 years now, Kaneshiro has worked with nonprofits, creating promotional videos for the web. But after returning to Hawai‘i, he discovered a story that he knew he had to document using his medium of choice.

“I stumbled upon this story about four years ago,” says Kaneshiro. “I was helping a friend out with a project of his and the last interview was with Beth McLachlin and she starts talking about Donnis Thompson’s vision.”

McLachlin is a decades-long contributor to the women's volleyball program. In 1972, Dr. Donnis Thompson became the first Director of the Hawai‘i Rainbow Wahine athletics program at the University of Hawai‘i (UH).

“Beth described [a women’s basketball] invitational that Dr. Thompson put on at the Blaisdell—7,800 people came. It was record-breaking,” says Kaneshiro. “This was 1976 when no one had done anything like this. And this woman—her story of being an African American here at that time and doing what she did—it blew my mind. That’s when that love of storytelling really awakened inside of me.”

While Kaneshiro was researching Thompson, he discovered the late Representative Patsy Mink’s significant role in the creation of Title IX, and Pat Saiki’s work to implement it at UH, and realized there was enough material in the story to create a full-length documentary.

The Rise of the Wahine

“The title, Rise of the Wahine, means multiple things,” explains Kaneshiro. “Wahine means woman, of course, and it’s the name of our women’s athletic program, but women in general were also rising in this country. At this particular time in the early ’70s—politically, culturally—it was just an electric time. So the rise of the Wahine athletic program becomes an example of women who were able to run with the doors that began opening for them then.”

Doors that began opening, in large part, thanks to Patsy Mink, the first Asian-American woman (and first woman of color) to be elected to Congress.

Mink had faced discrimination throughout her life but always displayed a fierce determination to fight it. In her junior year at Maui High, she won the class presidential election despite the fact that the election took place mere months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and feelings of distrust and racism toward Japanese-Americans were pervasive. While attending the University of Nebraska, she successfully created a coalition of parents, students, teachers, alumni, businesses and even administrators that lobbied for an end to the university’s dormitory segregation rule.

In 1948, she applied to 20 medical schools, none of which would accept her because she was a woman. So she attended law school instead at the University of Chicago, which had accepted women since 1902.

“These experiences, and watching her own daughter, Wendy, experience discrimination from a young age, sparked Patsy to say, ‘This thing’s not stopping. It’s carrying on to the next generation and we need to end it,’” explains Kaneshiro.

In 1972, her hard work in Congress helped allow President Nixon to sign Title IX into law. The law says that any institution receiving federal funding cannot discriminate based on gender.

Patsy Mink standing with President Lyndon B. Johnson

Here in the Hawai‘i State Legislature, Pat Saiki began to carve out money in the budget to advance the women’s programs at UH. One of the first things she accomplished was inserting language that required UH to hire an Athletics Director for a new women’s program.

Pat Saiki

“Dr. Thompson was an African American woman from Chicago who came to UH Mānoa in the early 1960s as a coach and educator. She had faced discrimination in athletics herself, so she was very eager to create opportunities for female athletes at UH,” says Kaneshiro. “All these things happen in this wonderful sort of synergy—Title IX passes, Pat Saiki opens the door for Donnis Thompson to become athletic director, and the Wahine program is founded.”

Even after Title IX passed, it took many more years for the government to work out what equality in education and what school-compliance with the law should look like.

“Some of the controversy arose out of the fact that oftentimes universities would deal with compliance by cutting men’s programs to fund these female programs and then blame Title IX,” says Kaneshiro.

Throughout 1974–5, a series of battles were fought to clarify enforcement of Title IX. Patsy Mink once again led the charge to defend the law against each wave of attacks. In recognition of this, the law was officially renamed the “Patsy Takemoto Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act” in 2002, after Mink passed away.

“People in the nation don’t really know that,” says Kaneshiro. “People here in Hawai‘i don’t often know that. These women had to fight and stick their necks out, and because of that, a program like the Wahine exists today.”

The Documentary

“You have to believe in the story you tell,” says Kaneshiro about the research-intensive documentary process.

Kaneshiro had to learn all the aspects of video production during his time working with nonprofits. Kaneshiro handled a great deal of the production for the documentary as well, including most of the filming and editing.

The other members of the team include Tiffany Taylor, who handles marketing and distribution from Los Angeles, and Ryan Kalei Tsuji, a former assistant coach for the Wahine Volleyball team who is co-producer and helped conduct interviews with UH officials.

“The more I did research on Dr. Thompson, the more I realized how cinematic this amazing story was and I knew I wanted to tell the story through film,” Kaneshiro explains.

The battles Mink fought in Congress and the battles Thompson fought at UH interweave and build off one another to create a true underdog story in a sports sense as well as socially, politically and in the media.

“The vision of what they accomplished and how they pulled it off is a story that will appeal to any visionary—not just those in women’s equality,” says Kaneshiro.

“I knew it would be a long journey,” says Kaneshiro. “But what’s fun about the documentary is that every single person that we interviewed—they got excited about it. Especially the women who lived through this in the ’70s. It’s an opportunity for them to tell their story; it’s an opportunity for our generation to honor them. Patsy Mink and the other women heroes that fought for these changes deserve a lot of credit. Things are so different now, 40 years later, and it’s thanks to their efforts. That’s a story worth telling.”


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