Patsy Mink: “Ahead of the Majority” and First Woman of Color in Congress

In honor of Women’s History Month, we’ll be highlighting the stories of women in the United States who paved the way and inspired girls everywhere to follow their dreams.

As a Japanese-American from Hawaii, Patsy Mink became the first woman of color in Congress and the first Asian American woman to serve in Congress in 1964. Her work for the advancement and equality of women not only affected politics, but also education and reproductive rights.

Patsy Mink was born in 1927 in Paia, Maui. Although Mink was the first female president of her high school student body and graduated as the valedictorian, she faced discrimination as a woman of color in college. Mink was assigned to the international students’ dorms because people of color were not allowed in the main dorms. In addition to facing discrimination as a person of color, Mink also faced gender discrimination when applying for medical schools. After Mink was rejected from several medical schools because of her gender, she applied to the University of Chicago’s law school where she was accepted as a part of the “foreign quota.” “Someone in law school had not read up their American history and hadn’t realized Hawaii was annexed in 1898 and that we were all American citizens,” Mink recalled.

After no law firms would hire her, Mink continued to specialize in family and criminal law. She also became involved in local politics, becoming the first Asian American woman elected in the Hawaii House in 1956. Mink then continued to become the first woman of color elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1964, serving for 12 terms. Mink also became the first Asian American to run for U.S. President in 1972.

In Congress, Mink was the principle author of the 1972 Title IX legislation that guarantees that “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

Title IX has had huge impacts not only on women’s sports, but also on women’s participation in higher education in general. Mink also introduced the first comprehensive Early Childhood Education Act.

In addition to Title IX and the Early Childhood Education Act, Mink advocated for civil rights, health care, welfare, the environment, and education. In 1970, Mink testified before Congress against President Nixon’s Supreme Court nominee, George Carswell. Mink objected Carswell’s nomination based on sexism, stating, “I am here to testify against his confirmation on the grounds that his appointment constitutes an affront to the women of America.” After Carswell’s nomination failed, Justice Harry Blackmun, who later wrote the majority opinion for the landmark case, Roe v. Wade, was appointed to the Supreme Court.

Mink was known at times to be controversial as she continued to draw attention to women’s inequality. “It is easy enough to vote right and be consistently with the majority,” Mink said. “But it is more often more important to be ahead of the majority, and this means being willing to cut the first furrow in the ground and stand alone for a while if necessary.”

Following her career in Congress, Mink went on to serve as Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs. After her death in 2002, Title IX was renamed the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act.


Media Resources: The Atlantic 9/16/18; Women’s eNews 8/26/15; Women on 20s; Feminist Majority Foundation 7/18/16

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