As the first woman of color elected to Congress, Mink also supported the Civil Rights movement. In her first act in Congress, she joined the protest against Mississippi’s suppression of black voters. Later, she also spoke out against the treatment of Wen Ho Lee, the Taiwanese American scientist arrested because of his race for espionage in 1999 and later exonerated.
She was also a fierce advocate for her home state of Hawaii and the Pacific Islands. She fought against nuclear testing in the Pacific, and she helped establish the Pu’ukoholā Heiau National Historic Site in Hawaii, a cherished landmark for Native Hawaiians.
But she wasn’t always popular. She was criticized and called “Patsy Pink” for her opposition to the Vietnam War. She briefly ran for president on an anti-war platform in 1972, garnering only a handful of votes. She was sometimes at odds with her own Democratic Party; its leaders did not always back her campaigns, and sought to undermine her.
“She was willing to buck the party leadership. She was independently minded,” said Troy Andrade, a University of Hawaii law professor who led the effort for Mink to be posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014. “If she saw something that was wrong, she was going to push until it was corrected.”
Andrade referenced one of Mink’s quotes, which became the title for the Patsy Mink documentary Ahead of the Majority: “It is easy enough to vote right and be consistently with the majority. 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.”
Mink was born in Maui in 1927. Decades earlier, her grandparents had been among those recruited from Japan to work in the sugarcane fields of Hawaii. Her mother was one of 11 siblings. Her father, who was orphaned at a young age, was one of the first Japanese American civil-engineering graduates at the University of Hawaii, and became a land surveyor for the sugar plantation. Growing up, she saw the stark segregation between Asians and Native Hawaiians and their white bosses on the plantation.
The day after her 14th birthday, Pearl Harbor was attacked. Though Japanese Americans in Hawaii were not interned like those on the West Coast, they were still under scrutiny. One night, Mink’s father was taken away for questioning (and later released), an experience that rocked the family and left a deep impression on Mink about the challenges of the law.
As a child, Mink wanted to be a doctor. She took many of the steps that she thought would lead her there: She was the valedictorian and the first female class president at Maui High School; she was also elected as president of the Pre-medical Students Club in college.
But in 1948, she sent dozens of applications to medical schools, and wasn’t accepted to a single one. That experience—along with later seeing her daughter face similar pushback for being a girl—inspired her fight on behalf of women. “Her personal experience with gender discrimination fueled her desire to make sure other people didn’t have that experience,” said Judy Tzu-Chun Wu, the chair of Asian American Studies at UC Irvine, who is writing a biography of Mink with her daughter.