MAYA PAINE MILLER
The information below has been compiled from a variety of sources. If the reader has access to information that can be documented and that will correct or add to this woman’s biographical information, please contact the Nevada Women’s History Project.
At A Glance:
Born: June 29, 1915 Los Angeles, CA
Died: May 30, 2006 Washoe Valley, NV
Maiden Name: Paine
Race/Nationality/Ethnic Background: European American
Married: Married Richard Gordon Miller of Denison, Iowa in 1940, in Los Angeles Divorced him in 1976
Children: Eric McClary Miller ne Eric McClary (male), born April 14, 1953, died July 4, 2002; Carson Ann (Kit) Miller (female) born March 7, 1955
Primary City and County of Residence and Work: Washoe Valley, Nevada. Worked there, and in Carson City, Reno and Washoe County, and Las Vegas (Clark County) and rural Nevada and nationally and internationally.
Major Fields of Work: Poverty, welfare rights, women’s issues, women with children, environment, feminism, human rights, race relations, peace.
Maya Paine Miller was born June 29, 1915 in Los Angeles, California, to Olivia Newman Paine and Paul Paine, an oil engineer. She grew up and attended elementary school in Beverly Hills, and graduated from Principia High School in St. Louis, Missouri, and Principia College in Elsah, Illinois. She earned a Master’s degree in English from Cornell University and worked on a PhD at Stanford University.
She married Richard Gordon Miller, an ichthyologist from Denison, Iowa, in 1940, and worked in San Francisco during World War II, while Dick was in the Pacific Theater. In 1945, the couple came to Nevada, where Maya taught English briefly at the University of Nevada, Reno. They had two children, Eric McClary Miller and Carson Ann (Kit) Miller.
In 1960, the Millers founded Foresta Institute for Ocean and Mountain Studies, a non profit center for the study of ecology. In 1961, they purchased the historic Washoe Pines Ranch next door to their home in Washoe Valley, which they ran as an environmental summer camp for youth. As a the result of an inheritance, Maya’s financial independence allowed her to support philanthropic causes of public interest without fear of economic pressure and without owing favors.
One of Maya’s earliest efforts was a fight to establish a bi-state park at Sand Harbor, Lake Tahoe. Through the early 1960s, Maya strategized, organized, and testified, along with environmentalists and sportsmen, and lobbied the Nevada and California legislatures. The park was established in 1971, ensuring public access to one of the most beautiful areas in the world.
In the 1960s, Maya also gave seed funds to the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe’s fight to reclaim their water rights and save Pyramid Lake. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the tribe, and reallocated Truckee River water for Pyramid.
Maya worked with the League of Women Voters of Nevada for many years, and chaired the Communities Committee on the LWV national board. But she resigned when the board failed to pass an anti-war resolution. During the Vietnam War era, Miller, by now a peace activist, and Dick, found themselves on President Nixon’s “Enemies List,” possibly because of their financial support of the antiwar movement.
Through the 1970s and 80s, Maya was involved in the welfare rights movement in Nevada with her friend and colleague, Ruby Duncan, lobbying at the state Legislature for better treatment and more respect for welfare recipients—who tended to be women and mothers—to help them get off public assistance. “Maya was most comfortable and happiest fighting for the underdog,” her daughter, Kit, said. Maya had aligned herself with one of the legislators’ favorite targets — poor women. The frustration all came to a head with the notorious “Hamburger Incident” in 1973, when legislators who were meeting with the welfare group had lunch brought in for themselves. The men ate in front of the welfare recipients, then offered the leavings to them. After the legislators left, Maya began angrily picking up their trash, then thought, “What am I doing?!” and dropped the trash to the floor. She went home, but later that evening, when her family was at dinner, a police car with lights flashing came roaring up the driveway, and served Maya with an ultimatum to apologize to the Legislature or be banned. Faced with the loss of her lobbying privileges, she gave one of the most grudging apologies ever penned: “I am sorry for the litter, but I cannot tell you I am sorry for my impatience or my sense of outrage at the violence Nevada does daily to its poor children. As I sat in the lounge on Friday watching men eat and talk while women listened and watched, I was overwhelmed by the sense of those poor women’s patience.” The legislature never quite got over Maya. A couple of decades later, Reno News & Review reporter Dennis Myers was passing a legislative security guard when the transceiver on the guard’s belt came alive: “Be aware—Maya Miller is in the building.”
From the mid-1970’s to the early 1990’s, Maya worked as the Chairperson on the Board of Trustees for Operation Life Community Development Corporation in Las Vegas, Nevada.
In 1974, at the request of several women leaders, Miller ran for the United States Senate, losing to Lt. Governor Harry Reid in the Democratic primary. At the time there were no women serving in the U.S. Senate, and her campaign drew national attention, funding and volunteers. She still managed to receive 38% of the votes and her campaign revealed that there was a strong base of women and men willing to support a woman candidate. “Maya wasn’t a real politician. She was an outside agitator fighting the powers that be,” daughter Kit Miller said. “She ran for the Senate because she felt the cause was right.”
A few days after that election, Maya and Kit traveled to a hearing in Germantown, Maryland, where they testified against storage of nuclear waste in Nevada, which at that time was near-heresy. One outcome of her campaign was the state’s first anti-nuclear political organization, Citizen Alert, founded by two of her campaign volunteers. That same year she helped start the Washington, D.C.-based Women’s Campaign Fund, a non-partisan organization, dedicated to achieving parity for women in public office in all levels of government, from school board to Congress. (http://www.wcfonline.org). She was also an early backer of Emily’s List, which supports female candidates in national races. She personally provided seed money for dozens of Nevada election campaigns of women, changing the face of state politics both literally and figuratively. She helped establish many groups, including the Committee to Aid Abused Women, Citizen Alert, the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, and the Nevada Women’s Fund.
Maya and Dick Miller divorced in 1976, and Maya stayed in Washoe Valley. Her home, Orchard House, and Washoe Pines Ranch next door, became known as welcome gathering spots for activists in Nevada.
In addition to her work in Nevada, Maya went to Washington DC to lobby for the rights of welfare mothers. She was involved with the National Welfare Rights Organization, National Women’s Political Caucus, and Women’s Lobby, Inc. She defeated Nevada’s lone U.S. House member in an election for chair of the Nevada delegation at the 1976 Democratic National Convention.
As this author observed, Maya Miller was a humble person, not impressed with being a part of the “in crowd.” When she was named a Distinguished Nevadan in 1981 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.
Throughout the 1980s, Maya traveled to Central America and other war zones around the world, advocating for an end to US military intervention. She helped build a Peace House on the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua.
In 1991 at the start of the Persian Gulf War, Maya joined members of Madre, an international women’s human rights group, and broke a U.S. embargo to deliver about $100,000 in infant formula and medical supplies to Iraqi women and children. Then in her 70s, she drove a supply truck part of the way from Jordan to Baghdad.
Maya Miller died May 30, 2006, at her home, Orchard House, at the age of 90. However, her legacy lives on through the lives of the many people she aided and inspired, and through her papers which are filed with Special Collections at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Researched and written by Mary Lee Fulkerson with assistance from Kit Miller, Maya’s daughter. Posted to Web Site April 2017.
- Maya Miller, 1990; Activist Promoted Women in Politics, Protested Wars. Los Angeles Times: June 5, 2006
- Maya Miller, 1915-2006, Reno News & Review: June 8, 2006
- Maya Miller Philanthropist, Washington Post: June 9, 2006 Personal Interview: Miller, Kit. via e-mail October 21 and November 2, 2016, and March 13, 2017.
- Maya Miller Papers, Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno. https://contentdm.library.unr.edu/cdm/landingpage/collection/miller
- The Women’s Research Institute of Nevada (www.wrinunlv.org)