Nevada HerStories: The good fight

Maya Miller and Barbara Bennett took on the male establishment

PHOTO/DENNIS MYERS: At this occasion on May 16, 1981, when Maya Miller was named a “Distinguished Nevadan” at the University of Nevada, Reno's commencement, she was asked why her children did not attend such an important ceremony. “They’re at the ranch working on the compost heap,” she said.

In 1973, Maya Miller, a champion of the voiceless and the poor, was nearly banned from the Nevada Legislature for “littering.”

Miller’s offense? She threw the fast-food wrappings of legislators on the floor because she was offended that they gorged themselves in front of impoverished mothers who were there to testify. “You offer luncheon leftovers just as you offer meager grants on which our children must grow,” she told lawmakers.

At that time, the average monthly check for welfare mothers and their children was $35 per person and Miller was supporting the demands of the Nevada welfare rights movement leader Ruby Duncan, who was pushing for a $67 monthly allocation. The committee ultimately agreed on a $42 individual payment, the largest increase in the aid to dependent children program since it began in the 1950s.

“As long as you choose to be co-conspirators with the forces of violence,” Miller wrote to lawmakers, “we will continue to dramatize the violence you promote.” 

Philanthropist and activist

Miller is known in Nevada for her extraordinary generosity and advocacy for women, children and for peace throughout Nevada and internationally.

Maya and Richard Miller moved to the Silver State in 1945 and made their home in Washoe Valley. They founded the Foresta Institute for Ocean and Mountain Studies, a non-profit to study ecology, in 1960.  A year later, the couple bought the historic Washoe Pines Ranch next door to their home and ran it as an environmental summer camp for youth.

Maya Paine Miller

Armed with an inheritance that allowed her to support many favorite causes, Miller led an effort, with environmentalists and sportsmen, to establish a bi-state park at Sand Harbor, Lake Tahoe. The campaign lasted a decade, but the park was successfully inaugurated in 1971, ensuring public access to the landmark lake.  She also helped fund the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe’s fight to reclaim its water rights and save the lake, a case that went on to victory at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Compassion and drama

During the “littering” incident at the Legislature, Miller lobbied for welfare rights for women and was appalled when the male lawmakers not only ate hamburgers in front of a group of welfare recipients, but also offered them their leftover food. She went home after dumping the fast-food wrappers on the floor of the chamber, but that evening police officers visited her with an ultimatum. She was told to apologize to the Legislature or lose her lobbying privileges.

She apologized, but at the same time she conveyed her outrage at the treatment of the mothers by the  lawmakers.

Miller ran for the U.S. Senate in 1974 against a formidable opponent, Lt. Gov. Harry Reid, losing the Democratic primary against the man who became a leader of the Senate for decades.  Her interest in politics never waned, especially in promoting women candidates and causes.  She funded local women’s campaigns and Emily’s List, which supports women in nationwide elections. She helped establish powerful women’s organizations in her state, notably the Committee to Aid Abused Women, the Nevada Women’s Fund and also Citizen Alert, which evolved into the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.

Into the breach

Throughout the 1980s, Miller became a strong advocate for international peace and visited war zones.

She and members of Madre, an international women’s rights group, broke a U.S. embargo to deliver infant formula and medical supplies to Iraqi women and children. In her 70s, she drove a supply truck part of the way from Jordan to Baghdad.

Maya Miller died on May 30, 2006, at her home, Orchard House in Washoe Valley, at the age of 90. In 2020, the Reno Gazette-Journal named her one of the ten most influential women in Nevada history.

Barbara Bennett, the people’s mayor

The first woman to win election as mayor of Reno led a difficult life.

 At age 13, Barbara Jean Peters ran away from home. She worked throughout her high school years and then got a job at the telephone company. During World War II, she labored in the defense industry in the Bay Area.

After marriage to John A. Bennett and the birth of their three children, the couple moved to Reno. Bennett, lacking a role model for parenting, found caring for children difficult. She returned to work for the phone company.  At age 42, she suffered a massive heart attack and was out of work for four months.

When she returned to her job, she faced discrimination based on her age. She had evidence of the charge, but her family could not afford a long legal battle and she resigned from her job.

Fighting for women’s rights

Bennett joined local women’s rights advocates Maya Miller, Nancy Gomes, Sue Wagner and Mary Frazzini to found the Nevada Women’s Political Caucus. She joined in the (unsuccessful) effort to get the Equal Rights Amendment passed in the Silver State.

The Bennett family lived in a mobile home park. Bennett helped found a mobile homeowners association to lobby the Reno City Council and the Nevada State Legislature for legal protections for renters. 

She decided to run for the Washoe County Commission after reading a 10-volume report from the county regional planning commission which dealt with crucial issues of growth: water, transportation, education, quality of life and air quality.  She lost the election but ran for the Reno City Council in 1977, again unsuccessfully.

PHOTO/NEVADA WOMEN’S HISTORY PROJECT: Barbara Bennett was Reno’s first female mayor.

Taking on the ‘good old boys’

She was resilient. At age 56, Bennett challenged a “good old boy” of Reno politics, Bruno Menicucci, in a race for mayor.  She conducted a grassroots campaign and would not accept contributions from special interest groups.  She shocked the establishment and won, with help from seniors, teachers, women and others who understood her worth.

Bennett served as mayor for three years. During her term, she passed an ethics policy and convinced the Reno City Council to provide seed money for EDAWN, the entity that recruits new businesses for Northern Nevada.  She also facilitated the establishment of the Reno Planning Commission, opposed uncontrolled growth and tried to attach the costs of new growth to development.

In the interest of her family and her husband’s health issues, she moved to a more highly-paid state position in the Youth Services Division. There, she found a new passion in helping children in foster care and abusive situations and in promoting child care.

PHOTO/CITY OF RENO: Barbara Bennett Park in downtown Reno is a favorite spot for families.

The accolades come

Barbara Bennett was awarded a National Governing Award, one of five national awards for leadership in the public interest in 1982.  “I was shocked, because I didn’t think anybody knew about a little old lady from Reno, Nevada,” she said.

Another Reno mayor, Pete Sferrazza, once called Bennett “scrupulously honest… (she) lived in a mobile home and drove a VW Beetle.”

 After her death in 1991 at age 69, the city council established Barbara Bennett Park on the banks of the Truckee River in downtown Reno. Today, the park is enjoyed by citizens of diverse backgrounds, just as Bennett would have wanted.

Nevada HerStories is a Reno News & Review series in celebration of Women's History Month. The vignettes are condensed from longer biographies written for the Nevada Women's History Project.

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1 Comment

  1. Jan Chastain here, thanking Janice Hoke for this story. I knew these two women personally as did many of you. Thinking of Barbara Bennett still brings a chuckle. Her sense of humor sustained all of us when the going got tough. Maya. A side of Maya rarely glimpsed was her sensitivity to nature’s beauty. Once at the ranch I noticed a hard wind making waves through the tall grass in the land east across the valley. An invisible hand smoothed the yellow field into ripples. Down the wooden fence line I spotted first the caretaker/poet who had climbed the fence for a better look, then Maya. She stood alone in front of her house, hands clasped in wonder as she gazed across the valley to the ‘waving wheat’. Maya, the poet, and me, alone that day watching this scene, created a memory that still sustains me. As for you, Janice Hoke, are you still flying sailplanes?

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