She graduated from Maui High School in 1944 as class president and valedictorian and went on to attend Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, before graduating with a B. A. in zoology and chemistry from the University of Hawaii in 1948. Three years later, she earned a J. D. from the University of Chicago Law School.
Mink went into private law practice and lectured on business law at the University of Hawaii. In 1954 Mink founded the Oahu Young Democrats and worked as an attorney for the territorial house of representatives in 1955. Mink served as a member of the territorial house of representatives in 1956 and 1958 and was elected to the Hawaii senate, serving from 1958 to 1959 and again from 1962 to 1964, where she eventually chaired the education committee. In 1959, when Hawaii achieved statehood, Mink unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for the state’s At–Large seat in the U. S. House of Representatives, which was captured by future Senator Daniel Inouye.
In 1964, after reapportionment created a second seat for Hawaii in the U. S. House, Mink again mounted a grass–roots campaign that relied on a staff of unpaid volunteers. She ran without the blessing of the state Democratic Party leadership, raising campaign funds largely in small individual contributions. Throughout her career, Mink never had a warm relationship with the state leaders of her party; she attributed their lack of support to her unwillingness to allow the party to influence her political agenda.
With help from President Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory in the presidential race, Mink was elected as one of two At–Large Representatives. In a four–way race, she received 27 percent of the total to become the first Asian–American woman and the first woman from Hawaii to serve in Congress.
In the House, Mink successfully sought a seat on the Committee on Education and Labor, on which she served from the 89th Congress (1965–1967) through the 94th Congress (1975–1977). In her second term she also joined the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs and, in the 93rd (1973–1975) and 94th Congresses, served on the Budget Committee.
During the Johnson presidency, Mink strongly supported the administration’s domestic programs that were part of the Great Society legislation, but she was a critic of the Americanization of the Vietnam War. In September 1967, she refused to support the President’s request for an income tax increase because of her fear that the new revenues would be used for military action rather than the expansion of social programs.
Mink also advocated many women’s issues in Congress, including equal rights. One of her great legislative triumphs was the Women’s Education Equity Act, passed as part of a comprehensive education bill in 1974. It provided $30 million a year in educational funds for programs to promote gender equity in schools, to increase educational and job opportunities for women, and to excise sexual stereotypes from textbooks and school curricula.
In 1976, passing up a bid for what would have been certain re–election to a seventh term in the House, Mink sought the Democratic nomination for a seat in the U. S. Senate. Mink lost the nomination to fellow House Member Spark Matsunaga.
She remained active in politics, however, serving as Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs from 1977 to 1978. For the next three years she was president of the Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal political lobbying organization founded in 1947 by an array of scholars, activists, and politicians. 11 Mink returned to Hawaii and was elected to the Honolulu city council, serving there from 1983 to 1987 (from 1983 to 1985 as its chair). She ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1986 and for mayor of Honolulu in 1988.
In 1990, Mink returned to the U. S. House of Representatives when she won a special election on September 22, 1990, to fill the vacancy in the Hawaii congressional district left by the resignation of Daniel Akaka after his appointment to the Senate. On the same day she won the Democratic nomination to fill Akaka’s seat, Mink also won nomination to the race for a full term in the 102nd Congress (1991–1993).
Throughout her political career, Mink remained true to her liberal ideals. Previously in the majority, both in her party affiliation and her political ideology, she often found herself in the minority during her second stretch in the House. During the 1990s, Mink expended considerable effort opposing conservative legislation that challenged the liberal agenda she had promoted.
While attending the University of Chicago Law School, Patsy met hydrologist John Mink while playing bridge at the International House. He would become her husband and lifelong partner.