Patsy Mink Blazed the Trail for Asian American Women
When Hawaii became the 50th state in 1959, Patsy Mink was ready to make history. And she would continue to do so throughout her life.
Born in 1927 in Paia, Hawaii territory, the then Patsy Matsu Takemoto was the valedictorian of her high school class. After graduation, she attended Wilson College in Pennsylvania and the University of Nebraska but transferred because students of color were not allowed to live in the same dorms as white students. After undergoing surgery for a thyroid condition, she decided to finish her undergraduate degree at the University of Hawaii, where she graduated in 1948 with a double major in zoology and chemistry. When none of her medical school applications were accepted, Mink turned her focus to law school and was accepted at the University of Chicago.
At the University of Chicago, Patsy met and married John Mink, and within a year of her graduation, the couple relocated to Hawaii. Patsy quickly passed the bar exam, but unable to find a job because of her interracial marriage, she started her own practice, becoming the first Asian American woman to practice law in what was then the territory of Hawaii. Mink also worked as a private attorney for the House of Representatives in what was then a territory, and after Hawaii gained statehood, she immediately began campaigning to be elected as a congresswoman. Though unsuccessful on her first attempt, she rebounded by winning a seat in the Hawaii State Senate in 1962, and thereafter continued to campaign for the U.S. Congress despite her own party’s decision to support another candidate.
Her persistence paid off. In 1964, a second position was created in the U.S. House of Representatives and Mink won the election, making her the first Asian American woman—in fact, the first woman of color—to serve in Congress. Once in Washington, Mink fought for gender and racial equality, affordable childcare, and bilingual education. In addition to writing bills like the Early Childhood Education Act and the Women’s Educational Equity Act, she was also one of the authors and sponsors of the Title IX law, a landmark piece of legislation which stated that “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
Mink also remained devoted to her roots, and made the long journey back home every other week to make sure she was connected to the issues and concerns of the Hawaiian people. While in Congress, she fought discrimination by successfully serving on numerous committees including the Committee on Education and Labor, the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, and the Budget Committee.
Her exploits didn’t go unnoticed. In 1971 the Oregon Democratic Party invited her to appear on their presidential primary ballot to draw attention to the antiwar movement. While she received only 2 percent of the vote and withdrew her candidacy afterward, she continued to receive votes in other state primaries even after she had ceased campaigning. Moreover, she will forever be counted as the first Asian American to run for U.S. President. Her fight for justice never stopped, culminating in her hard work to pass the Women’s Educational Equity Act and in forming the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.
Mink’s distinguished career saw her elected to Congress six consecutive times on two separate occasions, and serve a total of 12 terms in the House of Representatives. Following her death in September of 2002, her name remained on the November election ballot and she won for a final time in a landslide. Later, in tribute, the Title IX law was posthumously renamed the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act.