Political pioneer

Patsy Mink, JD’51, was a tenacious and determined politician.

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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. (Women made up 45 percent of last year’s University of Chicago Law School incoming class.)

Title IX is better known for opening up athletics to women. In 1971–72, seven percent of girls participated in high-school sports. By 2010–11, it was 41 percent. Betsey Stevenson, an economist who has written about the effects of Title IX, says the law “revolutioniz[ed] mass sports participation in the United States.” 

Mink was diminutive but strong willed, with a big smile and a powerful ambition. She once danced the hula on national television, but she was admired more 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.

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 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.

In 12 terms as a representative from Hawaii’s Second District, Mink championed mostly liberal causes, including education, child care, the environment, and aid for the poor. She fought hardest for racial and gender equality and was a forceful advocate for both civil and women’s rights. Mink was part of a small but energetic group of women who helped to shape and advance the woman’s movement from Washington. “She was ahead of the game on that one,” says Dan Boylan, a Hawaii historian and author.

Mink, who died in 2002, was the granddaughter of Japanese immigrants who came to Hawaii to work on the sugar plantations. Their lives were marked by prejudice and discrimination but also by hard work and persistence. “The extended family history was a story of resilience and stick-to-itiveness and figuring out how to get things done,” says daughter Gwendolyn Mink, X’74, a former professor of politics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who writes on law, poverty policy, and gender issues.

Patsy Mink’s political values grew out of that history and out of her experience in pre–World War II plantation society. Life in Maui then was hierarchical, dominated by the white managers and businessmen who ran the plantations. Government was controlled by the Republican Party, which historians say aligned itself mainly with the interests of the big fruit and sugar companies. In contrast, Mink’s father, Suematsu Takemoto, revered Franklin Roosevelt and looked to him as the means of improving the lives of ordinary Americans. FDR’s radio addresses captivated young Patsy, who family lore says would listen to them under the mango trees that grew in the yard.

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 had assumed she was a foreign student. In her first year she found the city difficult, not least because of the harsh winters. “I don’t remember really enjoying myself at all,” she recalled. “It was so strange.” 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.

A law degree did little to improve Mink’s prospects. Making the rounds of firms in Chicago, she found none interested in hiring a woman. Abner Mikva, JD’51, who graduated in Mink’s class and served in Congress with her, recalls that years later Mink spoke “quite strongly” about the experience. “As she put it, she didn’t even get a good interview,” Mikva says. Mink and her husband decided to move to Hawaii, where she fared no better. Even Japanese American firms declined to hire her.

So she opened her own law office and lectured at the University of Hawaii. She also got involved in politics. Mink became part of a new generation of young Democratic leaders who emerged after World War II to challenge Republican dominance in Hawaii. Like Mink, many of these leaders were Japanese Americans whose sympathies lay not with the fruit and sugar companies but with the people of Japanese and Filipino descent who worked on the plantations and with the unions who represented them. Many of these new young Democrats, such as current Senator Daniel Inouye, were veterans and war heroes.

Being Japanese American proved an advantage with voters in Hawaii’s rural districts. Being a woman in the state’s Democratic establishment was less advantageous. Mink often found herself at odds with the mostly male Democratic leadership, and even after she had become a national figure, she was not always the party’s de facto nominee. Still, Boylan says, she was always part of the family. “They used to joke about Patsy as their little bowlegged Japanese doll.”

Mink had her own limitations. Despite her gifts as a speaker, she lacked the human touch of some of her Democratic rivals. Her resolve at times smacked of self-righteousness. “She could be abrasive,” says Jerry Burris, who covered Mink as a reporter for the Honolulu Advertiser. “She had a hard time being warm and fuzzy.”

She proved a tenacious and determined politician. 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. In Washington she suffered good-naturedly the attention that fell upon the pretty young congresswoman from Hawaii. She danced the hula on the Mike Douglas Show, appeared as the mystery guest on What’s My Line?, and tossed snowballs with Hubert Humphrey.

She also 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.

Mink made the most of her time in Congress. Her legislative achievements included Title IX in 1972 and, in 1974, the Women’s Education Equity Act. The latter provided funds to promote gender equity in schools, create education and job opportunities for women, and remove gender stereotypes from textbooks and school curriculums. 

On Capitol Hill Mink was reliably liberal on most issues and skilled at building coalitions. She became a recognized leader on education and later on women’s issues. Her colleagues regularly asked her to speak on behalf of their bills. Still, she had an independent spirit and did not hesitate to disagree with either her party or her constituents. Although most Hawaiians supported the Vietnam War, she was an early and outspoken critic, and she soon earned the epithet “Patsy Pink.” In 1972 Oregon liberals recruited her to run for president as an antiwar candidate in the state’s Democratic primary; she received only about 5,000 votes.

Losing never discouraged her for long. “She had a passion for her causes and her work, and she never gave up,” says 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.”

As a woman Mink was determined to project strength and confidence. “She was acutely aware that she couldn’t do things that men culturally would associate with female weakness,” says Gwendolyn Mink. “She couldn’t tear up.” Laura Efurd, who worked for Mink as a legislative aid, says that Mink “had a reputation as a tough-as-nails kind of woman.” But she says Mink had a softer and more playful side that she revealed in private. “One of the reasons she got along so well with her colleagues in Congress and other places,” Efurd says, “is that she had this charm about her.”

In addition to her short, quixotic run for president in 1972, Mink at other times sought a larger stage, with no more success. In 1976 she ran for the US Senate against a popular and affable Japanese American war veteran, Spark Matsunaga, and lost. She later ran for governor of Hawaii and lost. She ran for mayor of Honolulu—and lost.

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, with the women sharing $225,000. The University also agreed to provide the women and their children with medical screening and treatment. 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 Efurd. “But she was also very practical. She was going to try to change the legislation to make it better.”

Mink “came up in her own way,” says Neal Milner, a retired political scientist from the University of Hawaii. No other woman managed to achieve so much success among postwar Japanese American political leaders in Hawaii, or to exert herself in national life in quite the same way.

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.”

She also became a hero in the women’s movement. That year Congress renamed Title IX the Patsy Takemoto Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act. She might have liked that name. She was proud of her role in passing Title IX but vexed that people understood its influence too narrowly. “I’m tired of explaining it’s not just about athletics,” she once told Jerry Burris, the Hawaii reporter. To her it was about expanding educational opportunities for women. She was delighted to see how much had changed since she was a young woman, struggling to make her mark.

 

Richard Mertens is a freelance writer in Chicago.

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