UC Irvine Professor Pens Biography of First Woman of Color in Congress

UC Irvine professor Judy Tzu-Chun Wu chronicles the life of political trailblazer Patsy Mink, best known as the driving force behind Title IX.
Photograph by Emily J. Davis
Photograph by Emily J. Davis

Wu, a professor of Asian American Studies, collaborated with Gwendolyn Mink, a political science scholar and Patsy’s daughter, on “Fierce and Fearless: Patsy Takemoto Mink, First Woman of Color in Congress.” It’s the first biography of Mink, the main author of the landmark 1972 legislation that brought gender equity to education programs and sports. Enlivened and deepened by her daughter’s remembrances, the account celebrates Mink’s groundbreaking achievements and chronicles the challenges she faced as a politician.

How did your collaboration with Patsy Mink’s daughter come about?

I initially contacted her because the Library of Congress would ask her permission to allow people to access the (Patsy T. Mink Papers). I discovered that her mother wanted (Gwendolyn) to write (Patsy’s) biography. It’s hard to do that as a daughter. Also, Wendy Mink is a political scientist; I think she felt a little torn between doing something personal that would reflect their relationship and realizing that she had this responsibility as an academic to write an academic work. It just seemed to make sense to collaborate because I could write a more historical account of her mother’s life, and she could give insight into what was going on in their family.

When Patsy Mink got to Washington in 1965, her looks were commented on. She was called “a glamour girl.”

How did she feel about that?

According to her daughter, they liked to go shopping. (Laugh). It was something they enjoyed doing to relax. I think it’s also people’s projections onto her. There was a national convention, and (people were calling her) “Mrs. Hawaii,” treating her like she’s a beauty pageant contestant and asking for her measurements. Or asking her to perform hula. Yes, it’s part of her identity, but would they ask a male senator or congressman to perform a dance from his home state? There are so many outrageous examples of outright sexism; I think it’s so remarkable when people can work effectively in that environment.

How was she “ahead of the majority,” a phrase she used in her 1976 Senate run?

She was one of the early voices criticizing nuclear testing in the Pacific. Not just nuclear testing but the conventional and chemical testing that was happening. She was one of the early critics to think about the environmental impact. She was the first Japanese American female lawyer in Hawaii. There were all these ways she was getting shut out—educational opportunities, job opportunities. I think because of that she used the political arena to mandate equal opportunity. That’s what Title IX is about. People associate it with sports, but she was thinking scholarships, admission into programs, even housing and employment.

She represented Hawaii in Congress from 1965 to 1977, and then from 1990 to 2002. What about in between?

She went back to Hawaii and decided to go into the Honolulu City Council. I think most politicians are not going to go from Congress to the city council, but she was so adamant about addressing issues she thought were of concern to her community. I think she couldn’t help herself; she was responding to a need. It didn’t matter if it was Washington, D.C., or Honolulu—she wanted to get in there and do the work.