Today, women hold a significant role in US politics. One hundred and twenty-seven are serving in both the House of Representatives and the Senate—almost a quarter of Congress. This is a record number, with 48 women of color. Among them is Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA), the first woman of color to be nominated for vice president by a major party. But looking back from where we are today, there is another important woman to remember: Patsy Takemoto Mink, the first woman of color in the U.S. Congress.
For most of her career, Mink served as a representative for the 2nd district of Hawaii. She also briefly served as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State. Mink’s legacy is marked by her outspoken support for education, women’s rights, and her anti-war stance. But while many women choose to pursue politics as a career from the beginning, politics was not Mink’s first or second choice of career, but it was a necessary one.
As a Japanese American, Mink was born in Hawaii in 1927. She graduated from the University of Hawaii with a degree in chemistry and zoology. But despite her qualifications, she was rejected from several medical schools as a woman. Eventually, she attended the University of Chicago Law School, as one of two women in her class. But again, Mink struggled to get employment. As a wife in an interracial marriage and a mother, she was turned down from law firms. It wasn’t until 1959 that she began campaigning for a seat in Congress. Although she lost her first campaign, she won in 1964 to take the seat that she would serve for the majority of her career.
According to the Honolulu Advertiser, Mink said, “‘I didn’t start off wanting to be in politics—I wanted to be a learned professional, serving the community. But they weren’t hiring women just then. Not being able to get a job from anybody changed things.’’
When Mink entered Congress, she was the first woman of color and the first Asian American woman in the House of Representatives. As a result, she was called an “Oriental doll,” “Patsy Pink,” and “diminutive” by opponents and the press. But her work was not to be minimized. Mink served on the Committee of Education and Labor where she introduced the Early Childhood Education Act. It would assist the first child-care bill, student loans, bilingual education, and more.
Still, the foundation of Mink’s work was women’s rights and she was unapologetic about her determination. “If to believe in freedom and equality is to be a radical, then I am a radical,” Mink said in her 1960 speech at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.
In 1991, Mink supported Anita Hill’s right to testify against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas and joined marches to protest when Hill was initially denied. Mink also marshaled support for the Equal Rights Amendment, to end gender discrimination in government laws. But her most significant contribution to women’s rights is Title IX. In 1972, Mink co-authored the law with Representative Edith Green to mandate equal treatment for women and men in education.
Since then, Title IX has had lasting effects. The number of college-educated women has outpaced men since 2007. Where Mink was only one of two women in law school and previously turned away from medical school, women have now overtaken men in enrollment for both law and medicine. Title IX has also become drastically important for women in athletics, protection against sexual harassment and violence, and discrimination in financial aid.
Although she candidly spoke about her career in politics as not her first choice, Mink’s work has allowed other women to study and pursue politics as their own first choice. In the 2008 PBS documentary, Patsy Mink: Ahead of the Majority, Mink said, “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.”
Although Mink passed away in 2002, her work reminds us that when we talk about representation today, it’s not just another buzzword or platitude; it shapes who the future looks like.
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