Patsy Takemoto Mink
“What you endure is who you are. And if you just accept it and do nothing, then life goes on. But if you see it as a way for change, life doesn’t have to be this unfair. It can be better. Maybe not for me, I can’t change the past, but I can certainly help somebody else in the future so they don’t have to go through what I did.”
by Ariel Seidman-Wright
Patsy Takemoto Mink was a unique politician whose courage was matched by compassion. She possessed a moral conscience so rarely displayed in the highest roles of government, and her commitment to justice stemmed from firsthand experiences of discrimination as a third generation Japanese American woman. Patsy’s grandparents were among the Japanese recruited to work the sugarcane fields of Hawaii, and her parents' lives were also shaped by the plantation structure, with stark segregation between Asians, Native Hawaiians, and the White plantation bosses. This plantation society allowed White owners, many of whom did not even live in Hawaii, to exploit both their workers and the land while dominating every aspect of politics, economy, and society. Patsy's father, Suematso Takemoto was one of the first Japanese-Americans to graduate from the University of Hawaii as a civil engineer, and worked as a land surveyor for the sugar plantation. Her mother Mitama Tateyama, who had been one of eleven siblings, gave birth to Patsy on December 6th, 1927 on the island of Maui.
The attack on Pearl Harbor was the day after Patsy’s 14th birthday, and within an already racist climate, Japanese Americans came under intense scrutiny and abuse. In 1942, the U.S. Government began placing Japanese citizens and American citizens of Japanese descent into internment camps, and perpetuated the idea that they were a threat to the nation. Although Japanese Americans were not interned in Hawaii due to the fact that they made up such a large portion of the population, they were still held under suspicion. Patsy had childhood memories of her father being taken away in the middle of the night for questioning, and although he was later released, the experience deeply affected the Takemoto family, and impacted how Patsy grew to understand how many laws were designed to protect only select citizens.
The Takemoto Family
in 1932 or 33.
From L to R: Suematsu, Eugene, Mitama Tateyama, Patsy
Growing up, Patsy dreamed of becoming a doctor, and did everything in her power to carve a clear path to medical school. In addition to numerous academic achievements, she was Valedictorian and the first female class president at Maui High School, and elected president of the Pre-Medical Students Club in college. She attended both the University of Hawaii at Manoa and the University of Nebraska, where she worked to have segregation policies eliminated. Thyroid illness forced her to return home to Hawaii to receive treatment, and in 1948 after finishing her studies, Patsy sent dozens of applications to medical schools. She was rejected from every single one, and suspected this was due to gender discrimination. Another contributing factor that stood in the way of women’s admission to college programs at this time was the G.I. Bill, which gave male WWII veterans a number of benefits including preference and tuition to attend college and universities. In addition to blocking women’s access to education, many historians note that in everything from housing to education to business, the G.I. Bill was designed to accommodate Jim Crow laws, and largely contributed to the racial wealth disparities in America.
Patsy Takemoto Mink
Above: with the 1951 graduating class from the University of Chicago Law school
(front row, 7th from the left)
Below: with the Members of the
Territorial House of Representatives
(front row, 5th from the left)
After being rejected from medical school, Patsy Takemoto decided to study law, and was accepted to the University of Chicago Law School, though only as a mistake— the University had accepted her as a foreign student, even though Hawaii was then a territory of the U.S. She was one of only two women in her class that year. During her law program, Patsy met and married John Francis Mink, a fellow student, and when they graduated in 1951, no one would hire Patsy as an Asian woman, especially one in an interracial marriage. She gave birth to their daughter Gwendolyn in 1952, and this only added to the discrimination she faced from employers who suggested she should just stay at home and focus on being a housewife and mother. Patsy and her husband decided to move to Hawaii with their young daughter, and Patsy had to challenge the sexist statute that refused her the right to take the bar exam in Hawaii as she had lost her territorial residency upon marriage. She won this fight, and became the first woman to pass the bar exam and admitted to the bar in the state of Hawaii. Nevertheless, law firms in Hawaii still gave preference to white male lawyers, so in 1953, Patsy decided to open her own law office. Working as a private lawyer led Patsy to community action and ultimately politics, and she worked as an attorney for the Territorial House of Representatives and founded the Oahu Young Democrats.
In 1956, Patsy Takemoto Mink became the first Asian American woman elected to the Hawaii Territorial House of Representatives, and on her first day, submitted a resolution to ban the British from nuclear testing in the Pacific. She also worked on legislation concerning a broad range of socio-economic issues including education, employment, housing, poverty, and taxation, and in 1958, helped pass the Equal Pay for Equal Work law in Hawaii, which wasn’t passed on a federal level until 1963. In 1959, she ran for a seat in the US House of Representatives and lost, but in 1964, a second seat was created for the state of Hawaii, and she ran again. With no funding and no support from the head honchos of the Democratic Party, Patsy rallied immense volunteer effort and ran a powerful campaign; she managed to beat out favoured Democrat Spark Matsunaka, and won the seat. Patsy Takemoto Mink was the first Asian American woman and first woman of color to be elected to U.S. Congress. Among her 434 colleagues in the 89th Congress, only 11 were women.
Patsy Takemoto Mink with
daughter Gwendolyn and husband John
Above: campaigning with supporters
Left: on election night, 1964
Women of the 89th United States Congress, 1965.
Standing L-R: Florence P. Dwyer, Martha Griffiths, Edith Green, Patsy Mink, Leonor Sullivan, Julia Butler Hansen, Catherine Dean May, Edna F. Kelly, Charlotte Thompson Reid;
Seated L-R: Maurine Neuberger, Frances P. Bolton, Margaret Chase Smith
Takemoto Mink wasted no time tackling issues of human rights and equal access to opportunity. She was able to earn a post on the Committee of Education and Labor, and worked on comprehensive initiatives under the Early Childhood Education Act. These included the first federal child care bill, school lunch programs, special education, teacher sabbaticals, student loans, and establishing bilingual education. She also worked on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, and bills promoting vocational training, career guidance programs, adult education, and Asian studies. In 1967, she proposed a day care bill which would provide both care and education for pre-school age children of all economic demographics. It was the first bill of its kind to pass both Congress and Senate in 1971, but was vetoed by President Nixon, and to this day, lawmakers are still fighting to pass laws to create infrastructure for safe, accessible childcare.
Although popular within Congress, Patsy was often belittled in the press, which focused on her petite physical stature and gender rather than her political views. As many women still experience today, she was often asked questions about balancing career with family life. In the 1974 TV interview posted above, she responds with: “I think that’s probably the most offensive question ever asked, because I truly believe men and women are equal, and just as it’s difficult for a man in politics to have a kind of relaxed family life and leisure situation, it’s the same problem for women, it’s really no different— and I’ve never heard anyone ask a man “How has it been on your family?”
Undaunted by the perpetual obstacles of her sexist and racist workplace (and country), Takemoto Mink persisted in speaking out, even when it meant standing alone, ahead of the majority. In 1970, she became the first Democratic woman to deliver a State of the Union response, and the first witness to testify against Supreme Court nominee George Carswell, where she insisted that his appointment would be “an affront to the women of America.” Her testimony “felt momentous and risky,” as her daughter Gwendolyn Mink recalls, since “nobody had ever talked about sexism or misogyny for objecting to a Supreme Court justice.” Carswell would eventually be denied the position and Senator Harry Blackmun would be confirmed instead, going on to write the majority opinion in favor of Roe v. Wade.
Frustrated with the Nixon administration’s roll back of civil liberties and the continuation of the Vietnam War, Patsy entered the presidential race in 1971, with hopes to become the Democratic Party’s nominee. Since Hawaii had no primary, her name appeared on the Oregon ballot as an anti-war candidate. In the middle of her campaign, Takemoto Mink flew to Paris with Bella Abzug, U.S. Representative of New York, to meet with Nguyen Thi Binh, foreign minister for North Vietnam, as well as representatives for South Vietnam and the United States. They discussed peace negotiations and the treatment of American prisoners of war and Vietnamese-American orphans. Unfortunately, little was accomplished, and Patsy’s vocal opposition to the Vietnam War led the American press to label her “Patsy Pink.” After receiving intense criticism for her actions, Patsy Takemoto Mink lost the presidential primary, though as she recalled, “It was a case of living up to my own views and my own conscience. If I was defeated for it, that’s the way it had to be.”
Patsy T. Mink reviews signatures needed to put her name on the Oregon presidential ballot, March 10, 1972.
Congresswoman Patsy T. Mink (left), Mme. Nguyen Thi Binh, Foreign Minister of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam (center), and Congresswoman Bella Abzug (right) meeting outside of Paris, France, April 21, 1972
Although Patsy Takemoto Mink was involved in writing a vast range of legislation to protect the environment, women, children, and racial equality, her most well known contribution to American Law is Title IX. Working closely with Congresswomen Edith Green, Shirley Chisolm and Senator Birch Bahn, Takemoto Mink co-authored Title IX, a federal civil rights law to protect people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive Federal financial assistance. They faced intense opposition, especially from coaches of men’s sports programs who lobbied government for three years because they did not want to give up any of their budget to fund women’s athletic teams. Before Title IX, 98% of college athletic budgets went to mens’s teams, and there was no requirement that schools provide equal programs in any field to women.
As debate grew in the house, things came to a head in July 1975 during the final vote about whether sports would be exempt from the Title IX equality ruling. Patsy received a devastating phone call with the news that her daughter had been in a car accident, thrown through the windshield. Takemoto Mink rushed away to be with Gwendolyn at the hospital, and the vote to maintain full equality for women in education was lost by one: 212 to 211. Fortunately, House Speaker Carl Albert was a key ally, and because of Patsy’s family emergency, scheduled a re-vote. With Gwendolyn in stable condition and the congresswoman back on the floor, this time the vote to keep sports included in Title IX passed by 37 votes. Today, participation from girls in collegiate sports is 6 times greater, and in high school 10 times greater than it was in the 1980s. By 1981, there were continuously more women than men with Bachelor degrees, and by 1986, the number of women with Masters degree exceeded men. These are only two examples of the widespread impact of Title IX, which continues to provide both access and protection for millions of women, as well as men who wish to study in areas previously deemed "feminine."
Title IX, signed into law on June 23, 1972
“No person in the United States, shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
Five key benefits of the Title IX education amendments of 1972
(as summarized by author Emily Arnold McCully)
EQUAL ACCESS TO HIGHER EDUCATION
Before Title IX, colleges and universities could legally refuse to admit women— and some did. Now colleges can’t discriminate against applicants on the basis of their gender.
Before Title IX, many high schools didn’t allow girls to take traditionally “male” classes, such as shop and auto mechanics. Nor could boys take home economics, which focused on housekeeping skills, such as cooking. Now school have to let students choose their own career preparation classes, regardless of gender.
Before Title IX, schools could discriminate against women when making hiring decisions. For instance, they could fire a woman teacher who became pregnant. Under Title IX, such discrimination is illegal.
FIGHTING SEXUAL HARASSMENT
School administrators used to be able to overlook claims of sexual harassment. Under Title IX, schools must both try to prevent sexual harassment, and address all reports of it.
ACCESS TO ATHLETICS
Equal access to sports is the most widely known impact of Title IX. Before Title IX, one in twenty-seven girls played varsity high school sports. Today, two in five play, and they can get athletic scholarships because college sports for women are popular and widely available.
Although the passing of Title IX made gender discrimination illegal in institutions that received federal money, there were no funds available to make these changes a reality. Takemoto Mink teamed up with Senator Walter Mondale, and in 1974, co-authored and co-sponsored the Women’s Educational Equity Act. This legislation provided the necessary funding to amend sexist school curriculum, create Women Studies programs, and support organizations that empowered women. The Act was the first program to allocate government funding for gender equality.
In 1976, Patsy took a big gamble and gave up her seat in the House to run for a vacancy in the all-male US Senate, where no women of color had ever been elected. She did not succeed, but continued to work in Washington, serving President Jimmy Carter as Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, focusing on issues like toxic waste and whale protection. After resigning from the Carter Administration in 1980, Takemoto Mink accepted a position as the first woman president of the Americans for Democratic Action, and after three years, moved back to Hawaii, where she worked in local politics and ran for Governor of Hawaii and Mayor of Honolulu, but was unsuccessful in either bid.
Patsy Takemoto Mink returned to Congress in 1990, and served another twelve years, advocating for women’s rights, equal rights, healthcare reform, and education. She joined fellow Congresswomen Barbara Boxer, Louise Slaughter and Pat Schroeder to protest the Senate Judiciary Committee’s attempt to silence Anita Hill in the hearing of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, which ended up on the front page of the New York Times. Hill was later allowed to testify. A great deal of Takemoto Mink’s work was focused on reviving the socio-economic programs she had fought for in the 1960s & 70s, since the decades that followed had only seen the US government push back harder and harder against any laws that protected equality or the rights of its most vulnerable citizens.
Patsy Takemoto Mink on Capitol Hill
Barbara Boxer leads Congresswomen to the Senate side of the Capitol in October 1991 to seek a delay in the vote confirming Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court until the charges of sexual harassment brought against Thomas by Anita Hill were investigated.
Throughout her second tenure in Congress, Takemoto Mink worked on legislation regarding pay inequality, violence against women, rights to reproductive decisions, workplace discrimination, occupational safety, and more. She co-sponsored the Gender Equity Act, The Ovarian Cancer Research Act, and The DREAM Act, as well as helped form and chair The Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus and the House Democratic Women's Caucus. On January 6th, 2001, Congress held a joint session to certify the electoral vote in the contested presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. In a largely symbolic protest, Patsy stood in solidarity with the Congressional Black Caucus to block the counting of Florida’s electoral votes, arguing that the state’s Black voters had been disenfranchised. Since no Senator would co-sponsor the objections, the matter deferred to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of Bush.
In August 2002, Patsy was hospitalized in Honolulu due to complications from chickenpox. Her condition became worse over the following month, and on September 28th, 2002, at age 74, she died from viral pneumonia. She was honoured with a national memorial, flags at half mast, and a state funeral held on October 4th in the Hawaii State Capitol Rotunda. In addition to speeches from a number of leaders and Congresspeople, more than 900 women surrounded the tent where Mink’s casket stood in the Capitol Atrium and formed a human lei while singing Hawaiian songs.
Since Takemoto Mink’s election to the House of Representatives, there have been 301 more women, 49 more Asian Americans, and 12 more Asian American women elected to Congress. Upon her death in 2002, Title IX was renamed The Patsy Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act. Her papers are housed in the Library of Congress, and in 2003, the Patsy Takemoto Mink Education Foundation was established to provide educational funding for low income women and children. In 2014, Patsy Takemoto Mink was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. Her daughter Gwendolyn, now an independent scholar of U.S. social policy and politics, accepted the award in her honor.
Patsy Takemoto Mink dedicated her life to creating public policy that would improve life for women and minorities. She refused to be discouraged by rejection, and used her own experiences with discrimination to fuel her resolve to change the systems designed to keep her down. Takemoto Mink was the true embodiment of persistence, unapologetic in her confidence and commitment to justice, even when it made her unpopular. Her legacy is immeasurable, and her work irrevocably changed American society.
“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.”
Patsy Mink, Ahead of the Majority
documentary film by Kimberlee Bassford which aired on PBS
click the image to watch an
excerpt on youtube.
click on the photo of Patsy to see an index of the 3,204 pieces of legislation she authored or co-sponsored during her Congressional career.
She Did It! 21 Women Who
Changed the Way We Think.
An awesome YA book that
is also great for adults.
Written and illustrated by
Emily Arnold McCully.
Features Mink & 20 other
incredible, pioneering women
(including Madam CJ Walker!)
click the image to find the book on amazon, BUT if you can, support your local, independent bookstores!