While representing Hawaii for nearly 20 years in Congress, Representative Patsy Takemoto Mink (born 1927) has made great strides toward peace, women's rights, civil rights, equality and justice.
On January 3, 1965, Patsy Takemoto Mink was the first Japanese American woman and the first woman of color to be elected to the United States Congress. Breaking new ground for women and ethnic groups, though, was nothing new for her. The road to Congress was paved with many firsts such as being elected the first female class president in her high school and being the first Japanese American woman to practice law in Hawaii. Mink's dedication to helping others has resulted in legislative reforms in health care, education, women's rights, civil rights, conservation, employment and environmental affairs.
Trouble in Paradise
Patsy Takemoto Mink was born on the Hawaiian island of Maui on December 6, 1927. She grew up in the small town of Hamakuapoko where she lived with her parents and brother. Early on, she noticed the inequality between the haole or white people who owned the island's plantations and the plantation workers who were mostly Japanese or Filipino. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, she experienced even more inequality and injustice when her father was taken for questioning because of his Japanese heritage even though he had been born in Hawaii. Fortunately, he was released but many others were not. This event left a lasting impression on Mink. In Sue Davidson's book, A Heart in Politics, she recalled that the "experience was an important part of my development. It made me realize that one could not take citizenship and the promise of the U.S. Constitution for granted."
A Change in Plans
Mink was an excellent student and became the first female class president. She graduated from Maui High School at 16 and was valedictorian of the class of 1944. She then went on to the University of Hawaii where she wanted to study medicine. With the end of World War II, she was able to travel to the U.S. mainland and decided to transfer to Wilson College in Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, Wilson did not offer the classes she needed to prepare for medical school so she transferred to the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. Illness, though, took her back to Hawaii where she graduated with a degree in zoology and chemistry from the University of Hawaii.
Her dream of going into medicine was not to be realized. She was turned down by all of the medical schools to which she applied. At the time, she thought the problem was with her grades or that she was a Japanese American. Later, she realized it was her gender that excluded her. With no other options, Mink had to choose a different career. According to Davidson, Mink believed "the highest achievement is to find a place in life that permits one to be of service to people." With that in mind, she decided to become a lawyer and was admitted to the University of Chicago in 1948.
The Road to Washington
While attending the University of Chicago, she met John Mink who was studying geology. They were married on January 27, 1951 in the campus chapel. On March 6, 1952, their daughter, Gwendolyn Rachel Matsu Mink, was born. When their baby was six months old, the family moved to Honolulu where Mink became the first female Japanese American woman to pass the Hawaii bar exam. Yet again, she ran into sexism and was forced to open her own practice when no law firm would hire her. She also started teaching business law at the University of Hawaii. She was in her tiny law office when a friend called and invited her to a meeting about reforming Hawaii's lagging Democratic Party. The meeting ended up being the beginning of an entirely new career for Patsy Takemoto Mink.
Mink was convinced that the only hope for revitalizing the Democratic Party was the involvement of young people. She organized the Young Democrats throughout Hawaii and became the national vice-president for the organization. Her first big success was on November 7, 1956 when she was elected to the House of Representatives for the Territory of Hawaii. Then in 1959, she was elected to the territorial Senate. In March of the same year, Hawaii became the 50th state and she was out of a job. She decided to run for Congress but was defeated by the war hero, Daniel Inouye.
Mink did not run for office again until 1962 when she ran for a seat in the Hawaii Senate and won by a great margin. In 1964, she ran for Congress again and this time she won a seat in the House of Representatives which she retained for six terms until 1977. On the eve of her first term, Davidson reported that Mink told Life, "What I bring to Congress is a Hawaiian background of tolerance and equality that can contribute a great deal to better understanding between races."
From her first day in Congress, Mink was not afraid to take a stand. She and a few others protested the seating of the representatives from Mississippi to demonstrate their opposition to voting practices in that state that excluded African Americans. Mink also took a stand against the Vietnam War. When asked later if she considered that her views against the war might have hurt her career, Davidson noted her response was, "It was a case of my living up to my own views and conscience. If I was defeated for it, that's the way it had to be. There was no way in which I could compromise."
One thing Mink did agree on was President Johnson's war on poverty. She took an interest in more than sixty programs that were developed between 1965 and 1967. Some of her greatest efforts were in the area of education which fulfilled a campaign promise. She wrote bills for the benefit of needy children from pre-school through college and succeeded in getting many of them passed.
Mink also focused on women's rights. She felt that she not only represented her district; she represented all of the women in America since there were so few women in politics to voice women's issues. In 1970, Mink's objection to G. Harrold Carswell's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court based on his sexist beliefs resulted in the Senate turning him down. Mink also chose to push the idea of women in politics. In 1971-72, she ran for president in order to make Americans consider the possibility of a woman president.
In the fall of 1973, Mink took a position that she knew would be very unpopular with a great number of people. She asked Congress to begin the impeachment process of President Nixon so that the American public would finally know the truth about his actions. Four months later, the House brought impeachment charges against Nixon who resigned instead of facing the proceedings. President Ford's subsequent pardon of Nixon angered Mink greatly because she saw it as an injustice to Americans and she spoke out strongly against it.
In 1976, Mink decided to run for the U.S. Senate. She was defeated by another war hero, Masayuki "Spark" Matsunaga, who could be counted on to stick to the popular party opinions. In January of 1977, after 12 continuous years in Congress, Patsy packed up her Washington, D.C. office which had seen much activity. Davidson cited "halting nuclear weapons testing, ending the Vietnam War, amnesty for evaders of military draft; support of civil rights and liberties … family assistance programs, federal funding of daycare centers, federal aid for abortions, conservation, [and] environmental protection" as some of the issues she had tackled. Mink did have a new job, though. The newly-elected President Carter had asked her to be the Assistant Secretary for Oceans and Environmental Affairs. The high position was thought to be a breakthrough for the women's movement. Unfortunately, the job offered very little decision-making power and Mink resigned after less than a year.
Upon her return to Hawaii, Mink resumed her law practice and teaching at the University of Hawaii. However, it wasn't long before she got back into politics. In 1983, she won a seat on the Honolulu City Council and was re-elected for a second term. She also ran for Governor of Hawaii in 1986 and Mayor of Honolulu in 1988 but was defeated both times. In 1990 the tide turned, as Matsunaga died in office and Representative Akaka was appointed to Matsunaga's seat in the Senate. A special election was then held to fill Akaka's seat in the House. Mink won the seat and found herself back in Congress in 1991.
Back to Washington
Mink's return to Congress found her picking up many of the issues she had dealt with before. Once again, she confronted the military. This time, she opposed a planned military base on the island of Kauai in her district. She also found herself, along with the other women of the House, demanding an investigation of Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas, who was accused of sexual harassment. Unlike Carswell, the Senate approved the appointment of Thomas. In 1994, Mink sponsored more than one of the healthcare proposals being considered by Congress. When asked by Time why she was doing so, she replied, "I want to make sure that we have a bill."
Mink has also continued her earlier work for the rights of Native Hawaiians and others of Asian descent. In February of 1997, she introduced a bill that would speed up the naturalization process by eliminating literacy and civics tests for certain categories of legal immigrants. The Northwest Asian Weekly quoted Mink as saying that "their patriotism and loyalty to the U.S. should be rewarded rather than hindered by delays in the naturalization process." Mink was also one of the founding members of the Congressional Asian Pacific Caucus which she has chaired since 1995. As chairperson, she has placed health, immigration, affirmative action, and "English-only" legislation among the agenda items of the caucus.
No matter what position Patsy Takemoto Mink holds, her constituents can count on her to fight for their best interests. Alethea Yip in Asian Week quoted former Representative Norman Mineta as saying, "Her principle, her courage, and her committed leadership will serve the Asian Pacific American community well." Mink's strong and out-spoken leadership has taken her far in politics and there seems to be no stopping her. In his book of poetry, Believers in America, Steven Izuki said it best, "Criticism never stops Patsy Mink / From doing what she thinks is right. / She forges ahead against all the odds, / Refusing to give up the fight!"
Further Reading on Patsy Takemoto Mink
Davidson, Sue, A Heart in Politics: Jeannette Rankin and Patsy T. Mink, Seal Press, 1994.
Hoobler, Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler, The Japanese American Family Album, Oxford University Press, 1996.
Izuki, Steven, Believers in America: Poems about Americans of Asian and Pacific Islander Descent, Childrens Press, 1994.
Asian Week, October 6, 1995.
Northwest Asian Weekly, February 21, 1997.
Rocky Mountain News (Denver, Colorado), May 12, 1997.
Time, February 21, 1994.
"U.S. Congresswoman Patsy T. Mink Biographical Data, " personal documentation from Patsy Mink, 1998.