A principled politician: The story of Patsy Mink, the first woman of color elected to Congress

Known as a powerful speaker, Mink, JD’51, passed key legislation that changed the country

Patsy Takemoto Mink was 14 when Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor. On Maui, where her family had lived for three generations, the authorities arrested many prominent Japanese-Americans. Her father, a civil engineer, was taken away one night and questioned. He returned home the next day, but from then on the Takemotos lived in fear. Mink’s most searing memory was watching her father burn his Japanese mementos. “It made me realize that one could not take citizenship and the promise of the US Constitution for granted,” she later said.

Mink, JD’51, devoted much of her life to making sure that all citizens could share in America’s promise, including the poor, ethnic minorities, and women. Elected to Congress in 1964, she helped usher in the social-welfare programs of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, later fighting to preserve them after they fell out of favor in Washington. Her best-known achievement was Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, of which she was the principal author. Title IX prohibited sex discrimination in academics and athletics at institutions receiving federal aid. The law, together with the larger women’s movement, changed the country. In 1971–72, for instance, nine percent of law students were women. In 2011–12 almost half were.

Mink was diminutive but strong-willed, with a big smile and a powerful ambition, and was admired as a forceful and eloquent speaker. Hers was a politics not of deal-making, but of argument and persuasion. “I didn’t wish to get involved in that sort of grisly business of politics,” she said in a 1979 oral history interview.

‘A story of resilience’

Mink’s life was one of overcoming barriers. She was the first girl elected president of the Maui High School student body, one of two women in her UChicago Law School class, and the first Asian-American woman to practice law in Hawaii. In 1964 she became the first woman of color elected to Congress.

For much of Mink’s childhood, ethnicity was a bigger obstacle than gender. But as she grew older she encountered the difficulties of getting ahead as a woman. Graduating valedictorian from Maui High School, she attended several colleges, eventually receiving a bachelor’s in zoology and chemistry from the University of Hawaii. Inspired by the family’s doctor on Maui, she hoped to study medicine. But the dozen-plus schools she applied to all rejected her. There were some barriers even she could not overcome. “It was the most devastating disappointment in my life,” she recalled. She worked menial jobs in Honolulu, including one as a typist, until a supervisor recognized her talents and suggested she apply to law school.

This time she succeeded. She later said it had been a mistake; she was admitted only because the University of Chicago had assumed she was a foreign student. In her first year she found the city difficult, not least because of the harsh winters. But playing bridge at International House one night after dinner, she met John Francis Mink, SM’51, a World War II veteran studying geology. “People just looked at her and wanted to be with her,” he said later, according to a biography. Within months they decided to marry.

But making the rounds of firms in Chicago, she found none interested in hiring a woman. The late Abner Mikva, JD’51, who graduated in Mink’s class and served in Congress with her, recalled that years later Mink spoke “quite strongly” about the experience. “As she put it, she didn’t even get a good interview,” Mikva said.

Mink and her husband decided to move to Hawaii, where she fared no better. So she opened her own law office and lectured at the University of Hawaii.

She also got involved in politics. She was elected to the territorial legislature in 1956. In 1959, the year Hawaii became a state, she ran for Congress and lost. In 1960 she gained national recognition when she was chosen to give the speech on the civil rights plank to the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. In that speech, delivered in the strong cadences for which she became known, she declared: “If to believe in freedom and equality is to be a radical, then I am a radical. So long as there remain groups of our fellow Americans who are denied equal opportunity and equal protection under the law ... we must remain steadfast, till all shades of man may stand side by side in dignity and self-respect to truly enjoy the fruits of this great land.”

In 1964 she ran for Congress again. This time she won.

She threw herself into causes that had become important to her as a mother and as a member of the Hawaii legislature. She introduced or sponsored the first federal child-care bill and bills establishing bilingual education, student loans, special education, and Head Start. She made common cause with the dozen other women in Congress; once she and two other female representatives protested their exclusion from the congressional gym. “It was just a symbolic gesture that there are so many ways in which sex discrimination manifests itself in the form of social custom, mores or whatever, that you really have to make an issue whenever it strikes you to protest it,” she explained in a 1979 oral history. “You can’t tolerate it.” Later she participated in a demonstration in support of Anita Hill before the Senate voted on Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

Losing never discouraged her for long. “She had a passion for her causes and her work, and she never gave up,” says Hawaii historian and author Dan Boylan. “I was always struck by her sense of, ‘Well, we lost today but we’re going to win the next time.’ ... I think she made her compromises along the way. But she made a hell of a lot fewer than most politicians. She was a principled politician.”

In 1976 Mink learned that while pregnant with her daughter at the University’s Lying-In Hospital in 1951, she had been given DES, or diethylstilbestrol, a synthetic estrogen used to prevent miscarriages. The drug was later found to put the women’s children at risk for genital abnormalities, fertility and pregnancy problems, and cancer. Mink and hundreds of other women had unknowingly been part of a study to test the drug’s effectiveness. She and three others eventually sued the University and the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly. The parties settled before the case went to trial. The University also agreed to provide the women and their children with medical screening and treatment. Her daughter Gwendolyn Mink says that the experience was “the one thing in life” that made her mother “feel bitter.”

During the Carter administration, Mink served as assistant secretary of state for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs. She spent four years on the Honolulu city council. In 1990 her old congressional seat opened up, and she won it back. But Washington by then was a less hospitable place to liberals than it had been in the 1960s and early 1970s. Not only Republicans but also rising Democrats expressed skepticism of one of Mink’s core beliefs: that government had the ability—and responsibility—to improve lives. Mink spent much of her time battling to preserve programs she had once helped to establish. She fought those who wanted to weaken Title IX. She opposed welfare reform and, when it passed, tried to increase support for education and child care.

“I think it was disappointing for her to come in again in a different time and era and for there to be these big things that she cared about that were being changed in a way she didn’t agree with,” says Laura Efurd, who worked for Mink as a legislative aide. “But she was also very practical. She was going to try to change the legislation to make it better.”

Mink really had two constituencies: the people of Hawaii and women across the country. In 1979 she said, “I realized that ... because women were not in politics, and because there were only eight women at the time who were members of Congress, that I had a special burden to bear to speak for them, because they didn’t have people who could express their concerns for them adequately.”

The spirit with which she carried this burden endeared her to many Hawaiians. Her death in 2002 brought forth an outpouring of tributes. “When she died,” Boylan says, “I’ve never seen so many tears flow from hard-headed politicians.”

Adapted from an article by Richard Mertens published in the Sept-Oct. 2012 edition of the University of Chicago Magazine.