Patsy Takemoto Mink was a lawyer and the first woman of color elected to Congress. She served 13 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, from 1965 to 1977 and again from 1989 to 2003. She co-authored Title IX, which was later renamed in her honor as the Patsy Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act.
Born in Hawaii in 1927, she graduated from the University of Hawaii with a bachelor’s degree in zoology and chemistry. She wanted to go to medical school, but was unable to get into any medical school because she was a woman. Unhappy with the gender discrimination that prevented her medical career, she set her sights on a career that would enable her to help eliminate such barriers to women achieving their goals. So, she went to law school at the University of Chicago.
Following law school, she went into private practice as the first Japanese American woman to practice law in Hawaii. She is said to have accepted a fish as payment from her first client. She got into politics in 1954 when she founded the Oahu Young Democrats, and she did legal work for the Hawaii Territory House of Representatives. She was elected to the Territory House of Representatives and then to the Territory Senate. Then, in 1959, when Hawaii became a state, she made an unsuccessful run for Hawaii’s seat in the US House of Representatives.
In 1964, when Hawaii got a second seat in the U.S. House, she ran for that seat and was elected, becoming the first woman of color, the first Asian American woman, and the first Hawaiian woman to serve in the U.S. Congress. Over the years when she ran for re-election, the democrats often mounted vigorous challenges to her in the primary; she attributed her own party’s opposition to her to her refusal to be bound by party politics, choosing instead to represent the people of her district and her own conscience without regard for party.
While in Congress, she co-authored and co-sponsored Title IX (with Indiana Senator Birch Bayh), which prohibits gender discrimination and requires equal opportunity in any educational program receiving federal funding, and which created many opportunities in women’s collegiate athletics. While advocating for the passage of Title IX, she said, “I had a special burden to bear to speak for [all women], because they didn’t have people who could express their concerns for them adequately. So I always felt that we [the 8 women in Congress at that time] were serving a dual role in Congress, representing our own districts and, at the same time, having to voice the concerns of the total population of women in the country.”
She sought and received important congressional committee assignments that enabled her to contribute in meaningful ways to many pieces of legislation that benefitted women. She co-sponsored legislation on bilingual education, child care, student loans, and support for students with disabilities, as well as important legislation related to labor and employment. She sponsored the Women’s Education Equity Act, which provided $30 million in educational funding to promote gender equity and eliminate gender stereotypes from school materials and curricula. Changing an educational system that encouraged boys to pursue careers in STEM and leadership careers, while aiming girls toward homemaker roles, was a priority for Representative Mink, who said: “So long as any part of our society adheres to a sexist notion that men should do certain things and women should do certain things and then begin to inculcate our babies with these certain notions through curriculum development and so forth, then we’ll never be rid of the basic causes of sex discrimination,”
Once when a reporter asked her how she balanced her family life with being a member of Congress, she replied “I think that’s the most offensive question that’s ever asked. I’ve never heard anyone ask a man, ‘how has it been on your family?'” Hear, hear!
She died in September 2002 at the age of 74 with her name still on the ballot for the following November. She was re-elected posthumously in the November election, and a special election was held in which more than 30 candidates vied for her seat.