Patsy Mink was a Democratic politician who became the first Asian American woman in Congress, where she championed expanding opportunities via Title IX and other legislation.
Who Was Patsy Mink?
Patsy Mink grew up in Hawaii and experienced racial and gender discrimination throughout her life. In 1964, she won election to the U.S. House of Representatives and she used her position in government to create legislation aimed at eliminating barriers for the generations that followed her. Mink died in September 2002. It was too late to remove her name from the ballot in the upcoming congressional election, and she won a resounding posthumous victory in November.
Early Life and Education
Mink was born Patsy Matsu Takemoto in Paia, Maui, Hawaii Territory, on December 6, 1927, to Suematsu Takemoto and Mitama Tateyama Takemoto. Both sets of her grandparents had left Japan to work on sugar plantations in Hawaii, making Mink a third-generation Japanese American.
Mink grew up on the island of Maui, where she witnessed segregation between white plantation bosses and Japanese American and native Hawaiian workers. She had a brother, Eugene Takemoto. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, many Japanese Americans on Hawaii were arrested; Mink’s father was questioned by authorities but was released.
In 1944, Mink graduated from Maui High School. She was both class president and valedictorian. She pursued undergraduate studies at Wilson College, the University of Nebraska — where she protested racial discrimination in student housing — and the University of Hawaii, which granted her a bachelor’s in zoology and chemistry in 1948.
Mink’s initial career goal was to become a physician. She applied to multiple medical schools, but none would admit her. After that disappointment, she instead decided to become a lawyer. She enrolled in the University of Chicago’s law school, becoming one of two women in her class; her admission may have happened because the university had mistakenly considered her a foreign student. Mink received her degree in 1951.
No Chicago law firm would hire Mink so she and her family relocated to Hawaii. In 1953 she became the first Japanese American admitted to the Hawaii bar; she was also the first woman to be licensed as an attorney in Hawaii. Unfortunately, she still encountered discrimination in her job search, with firms unwilling to hire a woman, a mother or objecting to Mink’s interracial marriage (her husband was white). Instead, Mink ended up starting her own private practice.
Not being able to find a job also led to Mink spending more time working with the Democratic Party. The party was then growing in Hawaii, where the pre-statehood government was dominated by Republicans.
In 1956, Mink was elected to Hawaii’s territorial House of Representatives. Two years later, she won election to the territorial senate. After Hawaii became a state in 1959, Mink unsuccessfully ran for Congress. She then won a seat in the Hawaii state senate in 1962.
In 1964, Mink was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. She achieved this despite receiving no local party support, a recurring obstacle in her career. When she was sworn in she became the first Asian American woman, the first woman of color, and the second woman from Hawaii to serve in Congress.
Mink’s legislative priorities included civil rights, women’s rights and support for child care and education. Among her notable accomplishments was Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. She was a co-author of this legislation, which required public schools, colleges and universities to provide gender-equitable treatment in education and other areas receiving federal funding, such as athletics. Mink also pushed for 1974’s Women’s Education Equity Act.
In addition to legislation, Mink joined with two other congresswomen to protest the fact that they were not allowed access to the congressional gym. In 1970, she testified in opposition to Richard Nixon’s Supreme Court nominee George Harrold Carswell, bringing up his refusal to hear a case about a woman who’d been denied a job because she had young children. Mink stated, “I am here to testify against his confirmation on the grounds that his appointment constitutes an affront to the women of America.” Her actions helped derail the nomination.
Mink ran for president in 1972, the first Asian American to do so. Her presidential campaign was focused on Oregon, where she, an opponent of the Vietnam War, got on the ballot to garner attention for the antiwar cause.
Mink, who unsuccessfully ran for the Senate in 1976, remained in Congress through 1977. She was selected to serve under President Jimmy Carter as assistant secretary of state for oceans and international, environmental and scientific affairs from 1977 to ’78. Mink joined the Honolulu City Council from 1983 to ’87. She lost races for governor of Hawaii and mayor of Honolulu before she was again elected to the U.S. House in 1990.
During Mink’s second stint in Congress, she focused on preserving legislative achievements such as Title IX. She also co-founded the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus in 1994 and protested against the elevation of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court following Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment. Mink remained a member of Congress until her death in September 2002. She posthumously won re-election to Congress in 2002.
While studying at the University of Chicago, Mink met John Francis Mink, a graduate student there. They wed in 1951, and their daughter, Gwendolyn, arrived in 1952.
More than two decades after Mink’s daughter was born, Mink discovered that during her pregnancy she’d been an unknowing participant in a study of diethylstilbestrol. DES, a synthetic estrogen, was intended to stop miscarriages, but it also came with multiple health risks, including cancer, for those who were exposed. Mink sued and later reached a settlement in the case.
Death and Legacy
Mink died at the age of 74 in Honolulu, Hawaii, on September 28, 2002. Her death was the result of pneumonia due to complications from chickenpox.
Following Mink’s death, Title IX was renamed the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act. Mink received a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2014. A documentary, Patsy Mink: Ahead of the Majority, recounted Mink’s life and achievements. The Patsy Takemoto Mink Foundation aims to continue her life’s work.