The Legacy of Patsy Mink

By Alison Minami

Currently I am writing a play based on the life of Patsy Mink (1927-2002), the first woman of color ever to be elected to Congress, for East West Players’ Theatre for Youth Program. The opportunity to write this piece has been so humbling, in no small part, because of the extraordinary life of Patsy Mink, a Japanese American, Hawaii born and raised native, and feminist trailblazer—a life of which I might never have bothered to learn about had I not been asked to write this piece.

Patsy Mink is known most for co-authoring the Title IX legislation (later renamed Title IX: Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act). This landmark law says that any federally funded educational institution must offer equal opportunity and access in any activity or program for all students regardless of gender, race, religion, or any other classification. This law is widely credited for building women’s collegiate athletic programs across the nation. It is because of this law that athletic scholarships for women exist, and that women’s sports programs are funded seriously at all. While Title IX is often most associated with women’s athletics, it has had far reaching impact in all areas of education including, for example, in mitigating sexual harassment on college campuses, creating gender equity in traditionally male dominated areas of study and their related professions, and accommodating students with disabilities.

The drive to draft such legislation was undoubtedly rooted in the many instances of gender discrimination that Mink faced as a woman in the 1940s, 50s, and throughout her career. As a college student at the University of Nebraska, she was denied housing in the dormitories because she was a woman of color, instead, told to go live in the International House, though she was from Hawaii, then a U.S. Territory. She also had her heart set on being a doctor from a very young age, but she was rejected from 12 medical schools. This rejection prompted her to switch gears and attend law school at the University of Chicago where she was one of only two Asian Americans and one of only two women in her class. Upon graduating law school, Mink could not find a job as a lawyer, despite having passed the Hawaii State Bar. The good ole boys’ network (read: old white men and plantation owners to boot) ran the show, and they weren’t about to let a woman, let alone a woman of color, into the club.

In reading about Mink, it is clear that Title IX was just one demonstration of Mink’s enduring core value to fight for equality and against social injustice. Mink entered politics in part because of all the barriers of entry she faced in her other professional endeavors. She yearned to make an impact and to work toward just causes. In Hawaii, she started the Oahu Young Democrats, and when Hawaii officially became a State in 1959, she ran for the House of Representatives. Her friend and political ally, Daniel Inouye, was running for Senate, but when Governor Jack Burns called to request that Inouye stand down and allow his political predecessors to have the Senate seat, Inouye became Mink’s opponent in the House race. Mink lost this race, but she went on to run many, many campaigns.

Notably and aforementioned, in 1964, with the help of her husband John Mink as her campaign manager, Mink became the first woman of color and the first Asian American woman to be elected to Congress. During her first stint in Congress, Mink fought tirelessly for educational equality and for the rights of women and children. Recognized for her anti-war stance regarding Vietnam, despite opposition from her own party, the Oregon Democrats recruited Mink to run for President, making her the first Asian American woman to ever run for the highest office in the land. Years later, during her second stint in Congress in the 90s, Mink would be one of the only members of Congress to vote against the Patriot Act. When she left her house seat the first time for a run for the Senate, she lost and returned to Hawaii. However, this loss did not stop her from political and civic engagement; she went on to run for city council, Mayor of Honolulu and Governor of Hawaii. She won the first and lost the last two races. What I found to be incredible about Mink is her tireless fight and her unwavering conscience. Mink was not under the spell of lobbyists, corporate donors, or party leaders. She was unafraid to speak her mind, loudly and vigorously, even when it meant offending her colleagues or going against unspoken party rules. She withstood any knock down in her life, and then stood up and looked for another door, because the fights she took on were never about her political career, but rather about her advocacy for the poor, the working class, and the disenfranchised.

At a time when so many of us are disillusioned with electoral politics, and the virtually fake democracy in which we live, the life and times of Patsy Mink reminds us (or me) to stop complaining, to not turn into a ball of apathy and cynicism, but rather to believe as Vaclav Havel once wrote “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” This, I believe, is the spirit in which Mink lived her life. Her sense of justice and equality and the dignity of all human life is what guided her, and it is what made her a force to be reckoned with.

I realize that you can just go on and google Patsy Mink, but to understand the essence of who she was, I insist that you watch her 1984 DNC Speech. (https://www.c-span.org/video/?c5007067/user-clip-rep-mink-dnc-1984). It reminds me of how hard so many people have fought for the world I live in today, which is certainly not without its faults and atrocities, but is yet and still, a far more just society in many respects than just fifty years ago.

As well, you can read Patsy Mink’s biography Fierce and Fearless (https://nyupress.org/9781479831920/fierce-and-fearless/), by Judy Tzu-Chun Wu and co-authored by Gwendolyn Mink, Patsy Mink’s very own daughter, or watch this wonderful documentary on PBS entitled Ahead of the Majority by Kimberlee Bassford. https://www.pbshawaii.org/patsy-mink-ahead-of-the-majority-2/

As an educator, a woman, a woman of color, an Asian American woman, I am so heartened that East West Players is supporting the telling of Patsy Mink’s life story. Every student in America should know about her legacy.

2 thoughts on “The Legacy of Patsy Mink

  1. Wow, she was phenomenal. I had not heard of her before now although I have heard of Title IX. Thank you for sharing.

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