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Patsy Mink was the first woman of color and the first Asian-American woman elected to the U.S. Congress. She dedicated her life to making sure all races and all genders are treated equally. She faced many obstacles, but always found the courage to go on.
This story was produced by Haley Dapkus with sound design and mixing by Mumble Media. It was written and edited by Abby Sher. Narration by Chloe Madriaga. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!
|Once upon a time, there was a girl named Patsy who was born in the Territory of Hawaii, and grew up on the island of Maui. Her father worked for an irrigation company, and her family lived on a big stretch of lush green farmland, with chickens, pigs and turkeys. They were surrounded by stunning mountains, towering banyan trees, and bright turquoise waters. Patsy loved to wander and explore, stopping to pick vegetables and smell the warm ocean breezes.
By the time Patsy was born in 1927, farmers had been tending this land for centuries. Patsy’s grandparents had sailed across the Pacific Ocean from Japan to work these fields when Hawaii was still an independent kingdom. Patsy was very proud that her family was Japanese, and treasured the traditions they shared.
Patsy especially loved the Japanese daruma doll. It was a small, pear-shaped doll made with papier-mache and painted with red and gold. Many people in Japan make a wish on their daruma dolls and then put the dolls on their shelves. Daruma dolls aren’t in charge of making wishes come true, though. They sit on the shelf to remind people that everyone has inner strength and can overcome any obstacle. And even though the dolls’ round bottoms make them wobbly, each time they tip over they always rock back up to standing.
Patsy felt a strong connection with her daruma doll. She often felt like she was being knocked down by the world around her, but she always got herself back up again, ready to fight for her dreams.
|When Patsy was in fourth grade, she started at a new school in Hawaii where she was one of the only students of color. Although her community had a rainbow of different ethnicities, her new school had mostly white students and not many girls. Patsy felt like an outsider because no one included her in their games or plans. Instead, she went home after classes to read books or listen to the radio.
Then one day, when Patsy was in tenth grade, she turned on the newsradio and heard a terrible report from one of her heroes, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt: The United States of America had just joined World War II after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. People started saying terrible things about Japanese Americans, even accusing them of being spies.
Soon, many people were forced to leave their homes and live in concentration camps, which were similar to prisons. Patsy was very confused and scared, and she worried for the safety of her family and neighbors.
Even though Patsy and her family stayed safe through this terrible time, she and many other Japanese Americans felt even more like outsiders. That feeling only got worse when Patsy left Hawaii to go to college. When she got to the University of Nebraska, Patsy realized that only white students were welcome in the dorms. Everyone else had to find their own housing. Patsy was infuriated. So she sat down and started writing letters…
She wrote to the university’s board of regents, to the local newspaper, to anyone and everyone she could think of who might be able to change this situation. She wrote about her heritage and demanded equal rights for all students of all backgrounds.
And you know what? The university actually listened and changed their housing policies!
But a few years later, Patsy felt the sting of prejudice again. She was an excellent student and applied to over a dozen medical schools, only to get rejected by all of them. Med schools were not interested in having many female students. Patsy was enraged.
She felt more and more like that daruma doll; like people were trying to tip her over and knock her down. But also like that daruma doll, Patsy was ready to get back up and try again.
First, she applied to law schools so she could learn about why there were so many laws discriminating against people of different races and genders. She got into University of Chicago Law, and dove into her studies. The more she read about the law, the more she saw how the U.S. promised freedom and opportunity to all, but so often fell short of these promises.
While she was at Chicago, she also met a very sweet geology student named John Francis Mink. Soon, the two of them got married and had a daughter named Gwendolyn. After graduating law school, Patsy and her family gathered their things, and moved back to Hawaii, settling in the capital city of Honolulu.
Patsy had to fight for the right to become the first Japanese-American woman to practice law in Hawaii. And when nobody would hire her — again, because she was a woman — she decided to start her own law firm. But by 1956, she realized that working with existing laws wasn’t good enough. If she wanted real change, she was going to have to make the laws herself.
|Hello, my name is Patsy Mink and I’m running for the House of Representatives.
Hello, my name is Patsy Mink and I want to make government work for everybody.
Patsy knocked on hundreds of doors, maybe thousands. She’d never planned on going into politics, but the more people she talked to, the more important her mission became. She ran for the territorial House of Representatives! And she won!
It was an incredible time to be in this position. Lots of people in Hawaii wanted to have a bigger say in how they lived their lives and who made their laws. But Hawaii was a territory, which meant the U.S. government ruled over them without giving them the rights of a state. Statehood meant better representation and protections for all of Hawaii’s residents. So, when Patsy got into office, she made sure to speak out for her people. And in 1959, Hawaii became the fiftieth state in the U.S.!
The following year, Patsy was asked to speak about civil rights at the Democratic National Convention. She only had a little time to prepare, so she jotted down her thoughts on an envelope and read honestly, with all the passion in her heart.
Standing up at the podium in front of 10,000 delegates and hundreds of thousands of Americans watching on TV, Patsy was magnetic. The audience couldn’t take their eyes off her.
How can America stand as the land of golden opportunity if indeed there is only that opportunity for some and not all?
she asked the crowd.
If to believe in freedom and equality is to be a radical, then I am a radical!
Patsy’s words echoed throughout the room as the audience roared their approval. And when the elections came around again, the voters remembered her words. On January 4th, 1965, she was sworn in as the first woman of color and the first Asian-American woman elected to the U.S. Congress. Now, she would take her fight for equality to the national stage.
|For the next twelve years, Patsy worked day and night to make laws that would provide and protect equality for all. She advocated for gender and racial protections, affordable childcare, and bilingual education. She demanded that the government be open and honest, and visited leaders around the world to promote peace.
Maybe her biggest victory was co-writing and defending the ninth amendment to the Constitution, known as Title IX. Title IX made sure that girls and women could get the same quality of education as boys and men. Patsy helped make sure there was equal funding for women’s learning, sports and even job opportunities. She also demanded that schools teach about female pioneers and heroes instead of just founding fathers.
It was not easy to get this amendment passed. After all, at the time, Patsy was one of only eight women in Congress — out of more than five hundred! She was asking schools and universities all over the country to change their curriculum, their sports facilities, and so much more. After the amendment had passed, some politicians tried to change it and get rid of some of its important details. Patsy fought back hard, demanding that women and girls get equal access. And then, just before the House of Representatives was about to vote again to keep Title IX intact, Patsy got a scary phone call.
Her daughter Gwendolyn had been in a bad car accident and was being rushed to the hospital. Though this vote was about everything she’d been working for, Patsy excused herself from the vote and hurried to the hospital to be with her daughter. While she waited anxiously for news about Gwendolyn, the rest of Congress cast their votes. It felt like everything she loved was in jeopardy. The House took advantage of her being absent, and voted to take out part of Patsy’s amendment! Patsy was devastated, but she had to focus all her energy on Gwendolyn. It was the hardest day of Patsy’s life. That daruma doll was so close to tipping over and falling off the shelf completely!
But hours later, when the doctor came out with a smile, Patsy knew her daughter would make it. And after national news stories came out about what happened, the Speaker of the House scheduled a re-vote for Title IX with Patsy there. And this time, with Patsy’s vote, Title IX survived too.
This was a victory for Patsy and many women in America. She had proved that as a woman, a mother, a legislator, and a changemaker, she would not be knocked down. Title IX would give girls all over the country a chance to excel in science, sports, arts and leadership.
|Patsy worked as a member of Congress until 2002. She passed away at home in Hawaii, while running for reelection. Even after her death, Patsy won the election in a landslide. Voters stood up for Patsy one last time, just as she had stood up for them. After her death, the Title IX law was renamed the Patsy Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act, and she was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Patsy spent her whole life fighting for equal rights for future generations. She helped give rebels throughout America the chance to pursue their most precious dreams. And her work is still very much a part of our everyday lives.
So, if you ever feel like life is getting you down, think of Patsy and her pear-shaped daruma doll, painted red and gold. It may wobble and even fall down, but just like Patsy, and just like YOU, it can always get back up, ready to try again.