By Naomi Tacuyan
(Throughout March, the Democratic Party is presenting an ongoing blog series celebrating American women of distinction, both past and present. Staff members at the Democratic National Committee and several female leaders in the party have been asked to write about influential women in the nation’s history and leaders who continue making contributions today. Tacuyan is DNC director of Asian American Pacific Islander outreach.)
“It is easy enough to vote right and be consistently with the majority . . . but it is more often more important to be ahead of the majority, and this means being willing to cut the first furrow in the ground and stand alone for a while if necessary.” —Rep. Patsy Mink
Congresswoman Patsy Takemoto Mink was fierce—that’s for sure. I didn’t have the privilege of meeting her before she passed, but her passion is evident in photos of her furrowed brows, her vision obvious in videos of her fiery speeches.
Mink is best known for authoring and championing Title IX of the Higher Education Act, which expanded opportunities for women and girls in education and athletics. To understand Mink’s contributions to racial and gender equality and her place in the Democratic Party, her journey must be given equal stage.
Rights that we take for granted today, were not so fundamental for Mink. She was a Sansei with educated parents and deep roots in Hawaii’s plantation past. Her maternal grandparents had migrated from Japan and labored in Maui’s plantations. She was a junior in high school when Pearl Harbor was bombed.
Mink experienced first-hand the discomfort of her Japanese American skin when her father was taken away for questioning. A month later, she was elected student body president at Maui High School and graduated valedictorian in 1944.
Mink moved from Hawaii, the country’s only majority-minority state, to the University of Nebraska, where she discovered that the university had a racial segregation policy for its living quarters. Rallying students and faculty alike, she successfully organized and had the university repeal the policy.
After gaining her bachelor’s degree from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, she applied to 20 medical schools—none of whom accepted women. This exclusion spurred her to apply to law school at the University of Chicago. In law school, she met her husband, John Mink, with whom she had one daughter, Gwendolyn.
Upon graduation in 1951, she returned home to Hawaii to practice law, where she once again encountered discrimination. She could not find a law firm willing to hire a woman. Patsy answered that challenge by opening her own law firm.
She was elected to Hawaii’s territorial legislature in 1956, the same year Hawaii was debating statehood. Three years later, Hawaii became the 50th state.
The year 1965 brought about the landmark Immigration and Naturalization Act, which reversed xenophobic immigration policies that imposed quotas based on national origins. That very same year, Mink joined the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat and the first woman of color.
In addition to authoring Title IX, Patsy also authored the first Early Childhood Education Act and the Women’s Educational Equity Act, both considered landmark legislation for the extent to which they advanced equal rights.
After an unsuccessful bid for Hawaii’s then-only Senate seat, Mink was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to serve as assistant secretary of state for oceans and international and environmental scientific affairs. She moved back to Hawaii after her appointment and served on the Honolulu City Council, where she was elected chair. There she served until she returned to Congress in 1990.
She passed away on Sept. 28, 2002, after a bout with chicken pox that led to viral pneumonia. Hawaii’s primary ballot could not be changed, and she was posthumously elected to another term in Congress that November. (Ed Case was elected to fill her seat in a special election the following year.)
Mink’s legacy lives on in the opportunities she championed and created for women and girls. Her vision for women lives on in organizations like the Patsy T. Mink PAC for Democratic Pro-Choice Women and the Patsy Mink Foundation—an organization that supports low-income women and children.
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.