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Researcher Story: U.S. Rep. Patsy Takemoto Mink, First Woman of Color in Congress

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Head and shoulders color portrait of Patsy Mink, wearing a blue blazer and a strand of pearls, smiling, against a blue blackground
Congressional portrait of U.S. Rep. Patsy Takemoto Mink, 1994. Prints and Photographs Division.

Judy Tzu-Chun Wu and Gwendolyn Mink co-wrote “Fierce and Fearless: Patsy Takemoto Mink, First Woman of Color in Congress,” published this month. Wu is a professor of Asian American studies at the University of California, Irvine. Mink is a scholar and writer, who with her father donated her mother’s papers to the Library in 2007. Their biography is the first to delve into the life of the trailblazing legislator and champion of Title IX.

 How did the two of you decide to collaborate?

Wu: When I started conducting research on Patsy Mink, Wendy Mink was one of the first people I contacted. We began with conversations and oral history interviews, then we decided to become co-authors. Wendy lives near the Library, so I would visit her and have dinner at least a couple of times a week while I was in D.C. for research.

Patsy wanted Wendy to write her biography, but I believe Wendy felt uncertain as to how to move ahead. As a political scientist, she did not want to write a completely personal biography of her mother. And as the daughter of Patsy Mink, Wendy did not want to write like a political scientist about someone she knew so intimately.

I’m so grateful for this collaboration, because Wendy authored beautiful and moving memoir vignettes that begin each chapter. She also read and edited all the chapters for accuracy and to add some details. I think it’s fitting that we have this feminist partnership to collectively write about someone who practiced feminist political collaboration.

Mink: Meeting Judy was a godsend, our decision to collaborate resolving my own inner drama over how to write as one person with two voices, the personal and the political-historical, simultaneously memoir-ish and scholarly. Writing was sometimes painful, especially when excavating certain experiences, but working with Judy was always a joy, and our common project was always motivating.

Tell us about Patsy Mink and why she’s important.

Judy Wu stands, arms folded, outside on a sunlit day, for a half-length portrait
Judy Wu. Photo courtesy of the author.

Wu: Patsy Mink is largely overlooked in academic studies and popular memories of feminist politics of the 1960s onward. The recent Hulu miniseries, “Mrs. America,” exemplifies this historical amnesia. Mink was not even a character on the show, even though she was a key feminist, antiwar and environmentalist legislator and political leader during the so-called second and third wave of feminism.

Mink advocated for intersectional feminist policies that carefully considered how race, class and gender shaped women’s lives. As a third-generation Japanese American from Hawaii, she brought a Pacific worldview with her to Washington, D.C. And, she worked collaboratively with those outside of the halls of Congress, particularly movement activists, to develop and advocate for policies to achieve equity. Given how jaded most Americans are about politicians, I believe Mink served as a model for ethical political leadership.

What resources did you use?

Wu: I became inspired to research Patsy Mink because I saw a feature on the Library website about her papers. As a historian, I relish the exploration of archives. However, I don’t think I understood how much archival materials the Library holds (over 2,000 boxes). I began researching Mink in 2012, and the book is coming out 10 years later. That’s how long it took to go through the materials, and I wasn’t even able to read everything or write about everything that I read. I also researched other collections, but the Library’s constituted the central source.

Mink: I began exploring my mother’s papers episodically in 2007–08. I started at the beginning of the collection and worked my way through chronologically, collecting scans of materials I expected to consult later when I was ready to put a story together.

I began to work in the papers systematically around 2010 or 2011 and was prepared to begin writing about the early period but was stymied by inner debates over voice. Even with writer’s block, I continued to collect and organize scanned materials from the collection.

Once Judy and I decided to collaborate and the idea of vignettes emerged, I began to chart my explorations in the collection based on topics I needed to cover. The finding aid worked miracles in helping me reach across the collection to find materials in varied locations about common subjects.

Did your research lead you to any surprises?

Black and white head shot of Wendy Mink, wearing glasses, with striped shadows from a window shade behind her
Wendy Mink. Photo courtesy of the author.

Mink: Given my close relationship to the subject, I can’t really say that I was surprised by my encounters with the collection. But I was delighted to be reminded that my mother kept everything. So, there’s lots of context material, third-party material, movement/activist material in the collection that help to flesh out decisions she made, projects she was part of, struggles she engaged.

Wu: There were many surprises for me. One of the periods of Mink’s life that I find fascinating is her time away from the House of Representatives. She served both on the Honolulu city council and in the State Department as assistant secretary of oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs. It was so interesting to see how consistent Mink’s political values were, whether she was in the halls of Congress or in  the city council.

Also, Mink’s time in the State Department revealed profound differences between the executive versus the legislative branches of government. On the one hand, Mink had greater reach as an assistant secretary. On the other hand, she was so hamstrung by the bureaucracy, particularly one that privileged male knowledge and expertise and organizational hierarchies. Although Mink also faced obstacles as a legislator, she definitely thrived and preferred the role of being a lawmaker.

What advice do you have for other researchers using the Library’s collections?

Wu: I benefited so much from being able to talk to Meg McAleer, the historian in the Manuscript Division who processed Mink’s papers. Her insights about the collection and how Mink’s presence in the paper archives differed from other congressional papers were really helpful. So, if you have a chance, talk to the person who processed the collection!

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  1. While visiting Honolulu, an early morning walk led us to the State Library and a memorial statue in Mink’s honor. I was so pleased to see that there was a memorial to this wonderful lady. Many years ago in college I had to write a political profile for a class and drew Representative Mink’s name and was wowed by her accomplishments. But I was saddened when I realized my sister had no idea of who she was – and realized probably how few people knew of Patsy Mink and what she did. Thank you for this terrific article. The book is now on my order list.

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