Patsy Mink was an incredible woman of many firsts. She was the first woman of color elected to the U.S. congress, the first woman elected to congress from the state of Hawaii, and the first Asian American to pursue the Democratic nomination for president. With every step, she overcame both racial and gender-based barriers.
Mink was born on the island of Maui as a third generation descendant of Japanese immigrants. Her first win was becoming student body president of Maui High School as a junior in 1943 — despite the anti-Japanese sentiment on the island brought on by the bombing of Pearl Harbor just a month before the election.
At the University of Nebraska, she was forced into racially segregated housing — something that was still standard at many universities at the time. Rather than put up with it, Mink organized a coalition, was elected president of the Unaffiliated Students of the University of Nebraska, and ended segregation at the school before the year was out.
After earning two separate bachelor's degrees, she attempted to move on to medical school. However, none of the 20 schools she applied to would accept women. Mink being Mink, she decided to fix that problem herself and went to law school instead. She got her Juris Doctor degree in 1951.
Patsy Mink's fight against sexism in the legal system started before she even passed the bar exam. At the time, women who married automatically took on the state residency of their husbands. Since Mink had married a man from Philadelphia, she was no longer eligible to take the bar exam in Hawaii. She challenged this statute as sexist, won, and became the first Japanese woman to practice law in Hawaii. That was after she set up her own law practice because sexist law firms wouldn't hire her.
As she got into politics, she was soon elected chairwoman of Hawaii's Young Democrats. Two years later, she was elected to the Hawaii Territorial Legislature (the equivalent to the state House of Representatives before Hawaii was officially a state), and in another two years was a state senator.
It was 1965 when Patsy Mink became the first woman of color to be elected to the United States Congress. She served six consecutive terms, during which she was a key author and sponsor of the Title IX Amendment of the Higher Education Act. After so many years, she finally accomplished what she'd set out to do — end blatant gender discrimination by federally funded institutions of higher learning. Thanks to her, women everywhere are accepted to medical schools, become doctors, and save lives.
After she died in 2002 at age 74, George W. Bush renamed the Title IX act to the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act. That was after she authored the Women's Educational Equity Act, became the first female Democrat to give a State of the Union response, was the chief sponsor for a piece of legislation granting considerable funding to the National Women's Conference, and was elected Secretary of the House Democratic Caucus.
Most people could only dream of accomplishing so much. Patsy Mink did so after facing many barriers put in place to stop women of color from rising to places of power and influence. There can be no Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month without honoring her many contributions to equal rights and justice.