Remembering Patsy Mink: civil rights icon and Hawaii’s first presidential candidate

Remembering Hawaii

On December 6th, 1927, Patsy Mink was born. The Maui High School graduate was a barrier-breaking politician, becoming the first non-white woman elected to congress, and the first Asian-American presidential candidate. She died of pneumonia in 2002 at the age of 74.

Mink was born in Paia, Maui when Hawaii was a U.S. territory. Her grandparents immigrated from Japan to Hawaii to work on a sugarcane plantation, making Mink a Sansei (third-generation) Japanese-American. Her father was the first Japanese-American to graduate from UH. 

She had a politically-minded adolescence, becoming class president in high school — during the attacks on Pearl Harbor, no less — and fighting segregation while a student at the University of Nebraska. She graduated from the University of Hawaii in1948 with hopes of becoming a doctor, but at the time no medical school accepted women. So she applied to a school that did accept women, and graduated from the University of Chicago Law School in 1951. She became the first Japanese-American woman to practice law in Hawaii, and in 1956, the first Japanese-American woman to be elected to the territorial legislature.

Shortly after statehood, Mink ran to represent Hawaii in congress. She lost to Daniel Inouye, but was elected to the House of Representatives in 1964 — the same year the Civil Rights Act was passed. She was the first woman who was not white to be elected to congress. While in congress, she co-authored the landmark Title IX law, signed by Richard Nixon, prohibiting discrimination in “any education program or activity.” It was later renamed the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act following her death in 2002. She also introduced the Early Childhood Education Act and the Women’s Educational Equity Act, both considered landmark laws in the push for civil rights. 

In 1972, she sought the democratic nomination for president, becoming the first Asian-American to do so. She received only 0.05% of votes during the primaries. She returned to congress, where she would serve as the Secretary of the House Democratic Caucus. In 1976, President Jimmy Carter appointed her as the Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, a role in which she served from 1977-1978. She would later serve in the Honolulu City Council, and again to the U.S. House of Representatives, where she would serve until her death in 2002. 

Upon her death, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld ordered all flags at military institutions to be lowered to half staff in her honor, specifically because of her role in fighting for equal rights. She received a national memorial and a state funeral. Because she died so close to election, her name could not be removed from the ballot, and she was posthumously re-elected to congress. Ed Case filled her seat after a special election in 2003. Mink was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2003, and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2014.

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