Denby Fawcett: Former Hawaii Congresswoman Launches First Book at Age 91 - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views.

With former Hawaii Congresswoman Pat Saiki, you can always expect the unexpected.

At age 91, she just released her first book: a memoir titled “A Woman in the House.”

The book is worth reading to remember how unfair life was for many in Territorial Hawaii; how the so-called racial melting pot was a myth and what politicians like Saiki did to right the wrongs.

Talking with her at her house about “the bad old days,” she once told me racial and gender discrimination affected her viscerally.

“It hit me in the stomach. It gave me heartburn. You feel like you want to throw up. It was so unfair,” she said.

I have known Pat Saiki since 1952, when she was my fifth grade PE teacher at Punahou School.

My classmates and I were one of her earliest challenges.

Saiki had been hired fresh out of the University of Hawaii by then-Punahou president John Fox, who told her he wanted her to join the faculty because the school needed “local teachers.” She became the first full-time local — meaning non-white — teacher in Punahou’s junior academy.

The fifth grade girls were sassy to Miss Fukuda, as Saiki was known then. We balked at her instructions because we hated physical education. We would do anything to get out of it. Our idea of exercise was riding horses around Kapiolani Park, not working up a sweat playing soccer.

Miss Fukuda was stunningly beautiful in her pressed white shorts and spotless white blouse, and very funny. She eventually won us over. We admired her even more when she signed on to be one of our summer camp counselors at Camp Kokokahi in Kaneohe.

Volcano Flights

I didn’t realize until I saw Saiki at her April 20 book event — held interestingly in a truck parts, sales and service company in Kapolei — that through the decades she had become a role model for many of us.

In Territorial Hawaii in the 1950s, there were no classes in leadership for girls. The only way to learn how to be bold was to watch others like our fearless PE teacher or by reading books about women who defied stereotypes, such as Harriet Tubman and Amelia Earhart.

Miss Fukuda, who later became Mrs. Saiki as the wife of obstetrician/gynecologist Dr. Stanley Saiki, did not fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean like Earhart, but as a UH student she flew over erupting Kilauea volcano in her weekend job as a flight attendant on the interisland carrier that became Aloha Airlines.

It was a risky venture that would not be allowed today, but it was what local airlines did then to thrill tourists.

She got double pay for the volcano flights, which along with other part-time jobs helped her pay her way through the university and leave her parents enough money to send her two younger sisters to college.

“My parents were horrified and prayed that the planes would not crash into the volcano,” she said. “But with the typical nonchalance of youth I never worried about my safety.”

Pat Saiki received congratulations from former Gov. Linda Lingle via Zoom during her April 20 book launch in Kapolei. Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat/2021

She writes in the book that from an early age she had been taught to think big by her father, a volunteer tennis coach at Hilo High School, who was disappointed he did not have any sons “so he decided to turn us into tennis champions.”

“He would call my sisters and me ‘Sonny Boy’ every time we hit the courts. He treated us no differently than he treated boys. He told us we could be anything we wanted to be. My father was a feminist before the word feminist became popular.”

Saiki said she decided to write the book as a way of making young people aware of the inequities in the Hawaii she lived through and the struggles she and others went through to correct them.

“I was in a position to make changes. I saw problems. I tried to solve as many as I could. Not just by myself, but also with the help of others — many of the people I invited to the book party. They all played a part,” she said.

She began her political career in 1968 when she was elected to be a delegate to the state’s first Constitutional Convention.

She said she had been eager to make change ever since 1958, when she and her husband were denied the right to buy a house in Aina Haina.

“When we made an offer, we were told by the all white members of the community association we were not welcome because we were Japanese-American. I was shocked to realize this kind of discrimination still existed,” she wrote.

Pat Saiki is in a political cartoon that Political Cartoonist Dick Adair created addressing the stopping of the bombing of Kahoolawe.
Pat Saiki views a political cartoon featuring her and her campaign to stop the bombing of Kahoolawe by political cartoonist Dick Adair. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Her advocacy for women’s rights, which she calls “peoples’ rights,” began after she left the teaching profession in 1969 to run for state representative and later to win election to the state Senate.

At the time of her first bid for election to the state House, her five children were ages 6 to 14, each with unique needs and demands.

Her supporters say rather than being handicapped by her family obligations, her boisterous home life combined with what she learned from urging on resistant students at Punahou and Kalani High School gave her skills to woo reluctant adults needed to pass legislation in Hawaii and later in the U.S. Congress.

Becoming A Leader

During her first term in the state House in 1970 — three years before the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic Roe v. Wade decision — she supported the controversial quest that made Hawaii the first state to decriminalize abortions.

She said she did not believe in full-scale, legalized abortion, but she entered the controversy because of the influence of “the selfless courage of my obstetrician/gynecologist husband Stanley.”

In her book she writes of phone calls they would receive at home, “usually between 2 and 4 a.m.,” from a patient pleading for help because she was bleeding profusely from a botched illegal abortion.

Saiki would drive with Stanley in the middle of the night to his then-medical clinic in Kaimuki to help the women.

“The woman had already made her decision. And no matter why she chose an abortion, my husband believed that saving her life was more important than the risk he took in breaking the law.

“I supported him in that conviction and I joined him when he met these patients in his medical office. I had the sobering task of holding a lamp over the woman so Stanley could see what he was doing. Switching on the office lights was out of the question because it would signal to the police that something out of the ordinary was happening.

“My husband, the patient and I could be arrested for breaking the law,” she wrote.

“I was outraged to know that a trained physician and his patient could be so unfairly exposed to prosecution. The woman deserved better — she shouldn’t be punished for making a difficult choice and she certainly shouldn’t be exposed to unsanitary medical practices by an illegal abortionist.”

She said that despite her own reservations about abortions: “I took this message to my colleagues in the state House and asked them to consider that a woman’s choice should be her own.”

Her next year in the House, she began what would be her lifelong quest as a lawmaker: righting racial injustice and unfairness to women.

Pat Saiki poses by a poster board at her April 20 book launch in Kapolei. Courtesy: Floyd K. Takeuchi

She says when she talks to young people today “they are amazed women then could not get credit cards in their name, a woman couldn’t get a mortgage in her own name, if they were a government worker and died, their husband could not inherit their pension.”

There were so many inequities, she writes in the book, including the “appalling situation” that after a woman had been beaten and seriously injured by her spouse or partner she could not bring legal charges against him.

“We amended the law to include spouse abuse as a misdemeanor, allowing victims to initiate action in family courts,” she recalled.

Of the 28 bills in what she called the Equal Rights Package, lawmakers approved 25 of them but not as Pat Saiki initiatives; the Democrats got credit by inserting her identical language into their own measures.

Saiki said she didn’t protest because her main goal was to get legislation passed and that local news reporters at the time such as Gerry Keir, Richard Borreca and Jerry Burris pointed out that she was the author of the bills.

She was a liberal Republican able to reach across the aisle to Democrats and won the support of then-Gov. John Burns as they joined forces for their common goal of getting a four-year medical school at the University of Hawaii.

In 1987, Saiki became the first Republican in the state to win a U.S. House seat and she became, after Democrat Patsy Mink’s victory in 1964, the second woman in Hawaii elected to Congress.

Legislative Victories

She writes in the book that one of her proudest achievements in Congress was urging reluctant House members in the Republican caucus to vote for a bill to grant reparations to the families of more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans sent during World War II to what she and others now call “concentration camps.”

Her uncle Shingo Narikawa and his family had been rounded up in 1943 and eventually sent to Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah.

“My plea for justice affected enough Republicans to change their votes and we passed the Civil Liberties Protection Act of 1988 to form an official apology to Japanese-American families and provide for token reparations of $20,000 for each interned person including children.”

She turned her doomed bid for a U.S. Senate seat in 1990 against Democrat Dan Akaka into another kind of victory for Hawaii.

When then President George H.W. Bush urged her to run for the Senate seat, which she was reluctant to do, he asked her what he could do to sweeten the deal and she said, “Issue an executive order to stop the bombing of Kahoolawe.”

Within four months, Bush directed then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney to terminate the military use of the island as a bombing range.

Hawaii politician Pat Saiki at her residence.
Pat Saiki says she hopes her book will raise awareness about the inequities she faced and the struggles to correct them. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Saiki lost the Senate election to Akaka by 9 percentage points, but Bush made sure it was not the end of her political life by appointing her to head the U.S. Small Business Administration, which she led from 1991-1994.

Her career as an elected official ended in 1994 when she lost the race for Hawaii governor in a three way race between Frank Fasi running as an independent on his own Best Party ticket and Democratic candidate Ben Cayetano.

Saiki continues her work to improve life for others by helping young public high school students participating in programs in the nonprofit Center for Tomorrow’s Leaders.

In her book she says she tells them that anyone can be a leader.

“Leadership starts with the dream of a better outcome and the courage to speak up,” she says.

She tells them that politics is not a spectator sport: “More than ever we need leaders who can motivate others to act for the common good.”

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views.

Latest Comments (0)

Great article, thanks Denby.  Where can I buy the book?

twakasugi · 2 years ago

Ahh, my 9th grade teacher at Kaimuki Intermediate! The best teacher in my whole time there and at my H.S.

Richard · 2 years ago

Wonderful article! Pat Saiki and all her tireless work for the betterment of Hawaii's people makes me proud to be part of the GOP.

KokoKai_Boi · 2 years ago

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