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

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. 

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