First Woman of Color Elected to Congress

Women of History are strong women who have marched before us. Patsy Takemoto Mink is one such woman. A political pioneer, Mink was the first woman of color elected to Congress. She was an ardent advocate for marginalized groups. She fought for equity, education, environmental causes, and social justice. 

First woman of color elected to Congress, Pasty Takemoto Mink

Early Life

Patsy Takemoto was born on Dec. 6, 1927, in Paia, Hawaii. As a young girl, she first noticed the inequality between people who owned Maui’s plantations and the workers. the haole or white people owned the plantations. The workers were Filipino and Japanese. Inequality and injustice came up close and personal after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Her father was detained questioned simply because of his Japanese heritage. She’s been quoted as saying the experience made her realize “that one could not take citizenship and the promise of the U.S. Constitution for granted.”

Education and her First First

A junior at Maui High School, Mink became the first female class president. She graduated Valedictorian of the class of 1944.

She started pre-med at the University of Hawaii. When WWII ended and travel bans to the U.S. Mainland were lifted, she transferred to Wilson College in Pennsylvania. But Wilson didn’t have all the courses she needed. So she transferred to the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. And there she, a woman of color, faced discrimination first hand. 

Then Mink developed a thyroid condition that required surgery. She went back to Hawaii.

In 1948 she graduated from the University of Hawaii with a bachelor’s degree in zoology and chemistry. And every medical school she applied to rejected her.

Still wanting to find a place of service to people, she was admitted to the University of Chicago Law School in 1948.

Marriage

She met John Mink, a geology student at Chicago U, playing the card game bridge at the International House. They married on January 27, 1951, in the campus chapel. She graduated from law school that year but continued to work in the law library at the university.

Their daughter Gwendolyn Rachel Matsu Mink, was born on March 6, 1952. The family moved to Honolulu six months later.

A New Direction

While in Hawaii, Mink passed the bar exam. She was the first female Japanese-American to pass the bar, but no one would hire her. One source says it was because she was in a biracial marriage.

So Mink became a private-practice attorney. She was the first woman of Japanese ancestry to practice law in Hawaii. She worked in private practice from 1953 to 1964. Then one day, a friend invited her to a meeting about reforming Hawaii’s Democratic Party. That meeting changed her life.

Political Career

She organized the Oahu Young Democrats in 1954. She served as the national vice-president for the organization. And then on November 7, 1956, she won a seat to the House of Representatives for the Territory of Hawaii. She became the first woman of color elected to Congress,

Patsy T. Mink Papers at the Library of Congress, Public Domain

Then, in 1959, she was elected to the territorial Senate. March 1959, Hawaii became the 50th state and she no longer had a job.

In 1962, Mink was elected to the Hawaii state Senate. She held that seat until 1964. She was elected to the newly-formed second seat to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1964. She held that seat until 1977.

She ran as an anti-Viet Nam war presidential candidate in the Oregon primary in 1972. But she lost to Sen. George McGovern.

She co-authored a bill in 1972. Title IX mandated equal funding for women’s academic and athletic programs in institutions receiving federal money.

In 1973 Mink asked Congress to begin the impeachment process of President Nixon. She wanted the American public to finally know the truth.

She ran for the U.S. Senate in 1976. Defeated by war hero, Masayuki “Spark” Matsunaga, she packed up her D.C. Office in January 1977. President Carter asked her to be the Assistant Secretary for Oceans and Environmental Affairs. And she quit after less than a year when she discovered she had very little decision-making power.

Back to Law

Mink resumed her law practice and teaching position at the University of Hawaii. Then in 1983 she won a seat on the Honolulu City Council. She served two terms. She ran unsuccessful campaigns to be Governor of Hawaii in 1986 and Mayor of Honolulu in 1988. 

In 1990, Matsunaga died in office. That prompted a special election. Mink won the seat in the House of Representatives in 1991. 

Women of the 89th Congress
National Archives and Records Administration / Public domain

In 1995 she helped found the Congressional Asian Pacific Caucus. Health, immigration, affirmative action, and English only legislation were among the agenda items she supported as chairperson of the caucus.

In February 1997, she introduced a bill that would speed up the naturalization process by eliminating literacy and civics tests for certain categories of legal immigrants. 

She continued working in Congress until her death.

They admitted Patsy Takemoto Mink to Straub Hospital on Aug. 30, 2002, with chickenpox. She died of viral pneumonia on September 28, 2002.

When Mink died, her name was on the ballot and it was too late to remove it. She was posthumously re-elected to Congress by a wide margin.

Legacy

Patsy Mink persisted. She was a political pioneer, a woman of firsts. And she continually worked to better the lives of marginalized people. 

After her death, Congress recognized Mink for her efforts. They renamed Title IX the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act. She was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014.

Trailblazer

Strong women blaze trails for those who follow. Patsy Takemoto Mink was certainly a persistent trailblazer. She was a political pioneer and a woman of firsts. As the first woman of color in Congress, she paved the way for other women. Thank you, Patsy Mink, for your tenacity, your integrity, and your persistence. 

If you liked this post, you can read about other strong women. A doctor a Native American, an astronaut, and a Nobel Peace Prize winner are some of the strong women featured on this blog. If you prefer strong women in fiction, check out my dystopian novel, My Soul to Keep

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