What It’s Like To Be The Only Asian-American Woman in the U.S. Senate

A conversation with Mazie Hirono.

Senator Mazie Hirono has “first” all over her resume. A Democrat representing Hawaii, she is the first Asian-American woman elected to the United States Senate, the first female senator to represent her state, and the first Buddhist in the Senate. She’s also the first U.S. senator to have been born in Japan.

Hirono immigrated to Hawaii as a little girl because her mother was seeking stability for Mazie and her brother. The children’s father was an alcoholic and a compulsive gambler. They fled him and their homeland on the steerage deck of a cross-Pacific ship. Hirono remembers crying as Yokohama Harbor receded in the distance. She was eight and spoke only Japanese.

Life in Hawaii was a struggle at first. The family slept sideways in a shared bed in the single-room boarding house they rented. Hirono helped support her mother and brother with the money she earned as a cashier in the school lunchroom and with her earnings from an after-school newspaper route.

Eventually, she paid her way through college at the University of Hawaii and law school at Georgetown University. Hirono went on to become a state representative, Hawaii’s lieutenant governor, and a congresswoman. She was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2012.

I caught up with her about what it’s like to be a woman in the U.S. Senate, where inequality still persists, and what it took to get her where she is today. Here’s our conversation, lightly edited and condensed:

What’s your first memory from when you were a little girl of what you wanted to be when you grew up?

At a pretty young age, I wanted to do something with my life that would help people. I’ve been that way for quite a while. I wanted to be a counselor or social worker. That’s one of the reasons I was a psychology major.

How did watching your mother go through what she did affect the way you thought about women and what it takes for a woman to be in control of her own life?

I always saw my mother just making decisions that helped our family. It was much later when I realized how courageous she really was, and I came to understand what a risk-taker she was. That’s very much a part of how I am. I never took a path that was the usual path for someone in my generation. A lot of the women who I went to school with, in those days, it was still the track of becoming a teacher, becoming a nurse. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but I didn’t go down that path. I did things that were different than what my classmates were doing. I think that’s really from my mom.

Who else inspired you to do something other than what society expected?

No matter how independent you are, you’re still part of a larger community with sexual stereotyping and everything else that really goes on. The book that really opened my eyes — here I am in college, and that’s when I read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Even if I had such an unusual mother, so independent, I still — there was a part of me thinking, ‘Well, I’m gonna get married and I’m gonna have kids.’

And then I read that book, and literally a lightbulb went on in my head: ‘Why am I thinking this? I’ve never had a male presence in my life, really, so why do I think some guy is going to come along and I’m going to have this traditional life?’ It was at that point I think that I really began to look at my life as something that was probably going to take a different path, and it did.

Hirono and husband Leighton Oshima at the White House Bowling Alley, 2012.

There were fewer women in law school during your time at Georgetown. What was that experience like?

Oh, yes. There were maybe 20 percent or fewer. I don’t know that I saw that much of a distinction by the time I was in law school. Definitely, there weren’t 50 percent [women], but at that point, at Georgetown, you’re competing with everyone else. It was a very competitive environment. I wanted to do public interest law. And the reason I selected Georgetown is they had really strong clinical programs, and I was in one of these clinical programs that involved being an advocate.

Fast-forward to being in Congress. Obviously we get more women with each election, which is great.

Yes. It’s really great.

But I’m still curious about some of the nuances — even if it’s something as seemingly small as the women’s bathroom being farther away from the floor.

You should see how it was on the House side. It’s much closer on the Senate side.

What are some of the other things you notice that are different for a woman than for a man, things that people who aren’t in Congress might not be privy to?

I’m pausing because every senator makes a huge difference. Regardless of whether you’re male, female, Republican, or Democrat, every Senate vote counts. From that standpoint, it’s not necessarily something that is a gender issue.

Right. So where it matters most, you’re truly equal.

But clearly, though, with the press, they seem to be really interested in the women of the Senate and when we don’t seem to agree on a path. I’m specifically talking about sexual assault in the military. [New York Democratic Sen.] Kirsten Gillibrand and I — and others — have supported a pretty significant change to the Code of Military Justice. [Missouri Democratic Sen.] Claire McCaskill has a different path. But we all agree that sexual assault in the military should be prevented and there should be prosecutions when these crimes occur. But there’s been a lot of press about why it is that we’re not together. I don’t think that’s an issue very much when men disagree.

It’s a very specific example of how the press still looks at our presence in this environment.

Years ago I found a 1950s article at the Library of Congress about [former congresswoman and Title IX author] Patsy Mink. The lede was something like, ‘the cutest politician you ever saw.’ So, on one hand, you think how far we’ve come, but then you still see coverage that references women leaders’ haircuts and outfits.

Or how petite we are. That sort of thing. You notice that a lot more still with women.

Hillary Clinton and Mazie Hirono.

You’re a woman in a legislative body full of men, and you’re also the first Asian-American woman in the Senate. Are you treated differently for one more than for the other?

My being the only [Asian-American] woman here and only the second minority woman ever to be elected to the Senate, I think that says we have a ways to go. When I go home, I talk with the kids in Hawaii and I say, ‘Do you know there’s only one person in the Senate who looks like us?’

They must be shocked. [Ed. note: Asians make up 38 percent of the Hawaii population; 23 percent of the population identifies as two or more races.]

Yeah, when I put it that way. Because they look around and they see the cosmopolitan backgrounds that everybody has. And I say, ‘I am the only person who looks like us.’ And they invariably look at each other. And I say, ‘That’s why we need to do a lot more.’

So what advice do you give to young people — particularly young women — who aspire to public service or elected office?

We need to get everybody in the pipeline in the local races. The local political arena is where it started for me, and I think that is still the case, especially for women. We need to get a lot more women into the pipeline… in the political arena as well as in the private sector.

You see the Fortune 500 companies, you see the boards. [Ed. note: Less than 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies have women CEOs.] They have to pay attention, otherwise they are not going to get the kind of diversity that’s representative of our country.

How do you think women can better support each other? For instance, I’m not aspiring to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, but I still want to see more women in those roles. What can I do?

Well, awareness helps. And to feel that they make a difference.

Women in Hawaii, they need to vote. I definitely think that we can improve the voting rates of women in Hawaii. So, education and awareness.

I think it’s important for women to realize that their daughters, particularly, can aspire to a lot of different things — like robotics. The kids in Hawaii really like it and I’ve talked to kids from elementary school on up.

Especially the elementary and middle-school kids, I ask them, ‘If it weren’t for robotics, would you think about going into engineering?’ And they say no! So a lot of times, kids learn by doing. And then they realize, ‘Oh, I can do this.’ So those kinds of opportunities are really important, particularly for the girls.

This interview was produced as part of The Only Woman in the Room, a collection by LadyBits. Visit the collection homepage to read more stories about what it’s like to be a trailblazing woman, and check out the call for submissions for information on how to contribute.