Patsy T. Mink, the first woman of color elected to Congress, participated in the passage of much of the 1960s Great Society legislation during the first phase of her congressional career. After a long hiatus, Mink returned to the House in the 1990s as an ardent defender of the social welfare state at a time when much of the legislation she had helped establish was being rolled back. As a veteran politician who had a significant impact on the nation during both stints in the House of Representatives, Mink’s legislative approach was premised on the belief, “You were not elected to Congress, in my interpretation of things, to represent your district, period. You are national legislators.”1
Patsy Matsu Takemoto was born in Paia, Hawaii Territory, on December 6, 1927, one of two children raised by Suematsu Takemoto, a civil engineer, and Mitamia Tateyama Takemoto. She graduated from Maui High School in 1944 as class president and valedictorian and went on to attend Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, before graduating with a B.A. in zoology and chemistry from the University of Hawaii in 1948. Three years later, she earned a J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School. In 1951 she married John Francis Mink, a graduate student in geology at the university. The couple had one child, a daughter named Gwendolyn, and moved to Honolulu, where Patsy T. Mink went into private law practice and lectured on business law at the University of Hawaii. In 1954 Mink founded the Oahu Young Democrats and worked as an attorney for the territorial house of representatives in 1955. Mink served as a member of the territorial house of representatives in 1956 and 1958 and was elected to the Hawaii senate, serving from 1958 to 1959 and again from 1962 to 1964, where she eventually chaired the education committee. In 1959, when Hawaii achieved statehood, Mink unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for the state’s At–Large seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, which was captured by future Senator Daniel Inouye.
In 1964, after reapportionment created a second seat for Hawaii in the U.S. House, Mink again mounted a grass–roots campaign that relied on a staff of unpaid volunteers; her husband, John, served as her campaign manager, “principal sounding board,” and “in–house critic.”2 She ran without the blessing of the state Democratic Party leadership, raising campaign funds largely in small individual contributions. Throughout her career, Mink never had a warm relationship with the state leaders of her party; she attributed their lack of support to her unwillingness to allow the party to influence her political agenda.3 With help from President Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory in the presidential race, Mink was elected as one of two At–Large Representatives. In a four–way race, she received 27 percent of the total to become the first Asian–American woman and the first woman from Hawaii to serve in Congress. In her subsequent five campaigns for re–election Mink faced a number of difficult primaries in which the local Democratic Party tried to oust her, twice by running women candidates to, in Mink’s view, deprive her of the gender issue.4 She proved a durable candidate in the general elections, however. In 1966 and 1968, in a four–way race for the two House seats, she garnered slightly more than 34 percent of the vote; in the 1966 race she collected more votes than any of the other three candidates. In the subsequent three elections, after Hawaii had been divided into two congressional districts, Mink ran unopposed in 1970, won 53 percent of the vote in 1972 and 63 percent in 1974.5
In the House, Mink successfully sought a seat on the Committee on Education and Labor, on which she served from the 89th Congress (1965–1967) through the 94th Congress (1975–1977). In her second term she also joined the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs and, in the 93rd (1973–1975) and 94th Congresses, served on the Budget Committee. Mink’s committee assignments allowed her to concentrate on the same issues that had been the focus of her attention in the Hawaii legislature. Among the education acts Mink introduced or sponsored were the first childcare bill and legislation establishing bilingual education, student loans, special education, and Head Start. As a member of the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, she supported the economic and political development of the Trust Territory in the Pacific. As chair of the Subcommittee on Mines and Mining, she helped author the landmark Surface Mining Control and Reclamation (Strip Mining) Act of 1975 and the Mineral Leasing Act of 1976. The House failed to override President Gerald R. Ford’s veto of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, though a similar measure was eventually signed into law in 1977.
During the Johnson presidency, Mink strongly supported the administration’s domestic programs that were part of the Great Society legislation, but she was a critic of the Americanization of the Vietnam War. In September 1967, she refused to support the President’s request for an income tax increase because of her fear that the new revenues would be used for military action rather than the expansion of social programs. It was, she said, like “administering aspirin to a seriously ill patient who needs major surgery.”6 If inflation threatened the economy, she suggested, the administration should tax big business and not just the average working taxpayers.7 Her views clashed with those of the three other Members of the Hawaii congressional delegation, as well as those of many of her constituents in a state with a heavy military presence. Years later, however, Mink recalled, “It was such a horrible thought to have this war that it really made no difference to me that I had a military constituency. It was a case of living up to my own views and my own conscience. If I was defeated for it, that’s the way it had to be. There was no way in which I could compromise my views on how I felt about it.”8
Mink also advocated many women’s issues in Congress, including equal rights. One of her great legislative triumphs was the Women’s Education Equity Act, passed as part of a comprehensive education bill in 1974. It provided $30 million a year in educational funds for programs to promote gender equity in schools, to increase educational and job opportunities for women, and to excise sexual stereotypes from textbooks and school curricula. Mink garnered critical support for Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments, which barred sexual discrimination in institutions receiving federal funds and opened up opportunities for women in athletics. She realized early in her House career that “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 [all women], because they didn’t have people who could express their concerns for them adequately. So, I always felt that we were serving a dual role in Congress, representing our own districts and, at the same time, having to voice the concerns of the total population of women in the country.”9
In 1976, passing up a bid for what would have been certain re–election to a seventh term in the House, Mink sought the Democratic nomination for a seat in the U.S. Senate. Mink lost the nomination to fellow House Member Spark Matsunaga.10 She remained active in politics, however, serving as Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs from 1977 to 1978. For the next three years she was president of the Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal political lobbying organization founded in 1947 by an array of scholars, activists, and politicians.11 Mink returned to Hawaii and was elected to the Honolulu city council, serving there from 1983 to 1987 (from 1983 to 1985 as its chair). She ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1986 and for mayor of Honolulu in 1988.
In 1990, Mink returned to the U.S. House of Representatives when she won a special election on September 22, 1990, to fill the vacancy in the Hawaii congressional district left by the resignation of Daniel Akaka after his appointment to the Senate. On the same day she won the Democratic nomination to fill Akaka’s seat, Mink also won nomination to the race for a full term in the 102nd Congress (1991–1993). She won both races and was re–elected comfortably to five subsequent terms with winning percentages ranging from a high of 73 percent in 1992 to a low of 60 percent in 1996.12
Mink was once again appointed to the Committee on Education and Labor (later Education and the Workforce) and also was assigned to the Government Operations (later Government Reform) Committee. During the 103rd Congress (1993–1995), she was on the Natural Resources and Budget committees, serving on the latter through the 105th Congress (1997–1999).
Mink continued to pursue legislative reform in health care and education. Believing that voters cared more about quality health coverage than any other domestic issue, she advocated a universal health care plan that would allow people of all economic backgrounds to receive medical treatment. Mink combined two of the longstanding interests during her congressional career when she co–sponsored the Gender Equity Act in 1993. Disturbed that gender discrimination still persisted in the United States 20 years after the passage of Title IX, Mink asserted that targeting gender bias in elementary and secondary education would help reduce inequalities between the sexes. She told the House, “We must assure that schools all across this country implement and integrate into their curriculum, policies, goals, programs, activities, and initiatives to achieve educational equity for women and girls.”13 Mink continued to crusade for women’s rights by organizing and leading the Democratic Women’s Caucus in 1995.
Throughout her political career, Mink remained true to her liberal ideals. Previously in the majority, both in her party affiliation and her political ideology, she often found herself in the minority during her second stretch in the House. During the 1990s, Mink expended considerable effort opposing conservative legislation that challenged the liberal agenda she had promoted. An outspoken critic of the welfare overhaul legislation that the Republican Congress and the William J. Clinton administration agreed upon in 1996, Mink exclaimed, “Throwing people off welfare and forcing them to take the lowest–paying jobs in the community has created a misery index for millions.”14 She also raised concerns about the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2002. Created in response to the terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001, the DHS was charged with preventing further domestic terrorist strikes. Mink feared the DHS might undermine civil liberties by violating the privacy of American citizens in the name of national security. In favor of full disclosure of government attempts to safeguard the nation from international threats, she proposed that no secrets be kept from the public.15 As Ranking Member of the Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations during the 105th Congress (1997–1999), Mink butted heads with conservative Republicans regarding a proposed $1.4 million investigation of alleged fraud within the Teamsters Union. A loyal supporter of organized labor, Mink accused Republican leadership of sponsoring a “fishing expedition” that wasted “taxpayers’ money for sheer partisan political purposes.”16
On September 28, 2002, after a month–long hospitalization with pneumonia, Patsy T. Mink died in Honolulu, Hawaii. Her name remained on the November ballot, and she was re–elected by a wide margin. Democrat Ed Case defeated Patsy Mink’s husband and more than 30 other candidates in the special election to succeed Mink in the 107th Congress (2001–2003) and later won election to a full term in the 108th Congress (2003–2005).17 Shortly after Mink’s death, John Boehner of Ohio, chairman of the Education and Workforce Committee, reflected upon Mink’s congressional service: “Patsy Mink was a vibrant, passionate, and effective voice for the principles she believed in. Her passing is a significant loss for our committee, the people of Hawaii and the people of the United States.”18
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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