Interviewee: Patricia Hill Burnett
Interviewer: Sister Marie Hayda
Date: November 20, 1977
Patricia Hill Burnett, a portrait painter, was a delegate from Michigan and the chair of the Michigan Women’s Commission. In the mid-1960s, Burnett helped organize the first NOW chapter in Michigan and served as president. She went on to serve on the national board for NOW. Burnett identified as a lifetime Republican. Interview includes discussion of: the international aspects of the IWY and the Mexico City conference; the controversy about Zionism and Israel at the Mexico City Conference; Burnett’s work as a portraitist and her depictions of famous feminists; and Burnett’s reflection on the presidents who have done the most for women’s rights.
Patricia Hill Burnett: I’m Patricia Hill Burnett. I’m a delegate from Michigan. Right now I am chair of the Michigan Women’s Commission and have been for two years. My first deep interest in the women’s movement which led to my coming here today began about twelve years ago when I started a studio of my own, ran into real competition with men, and realized that I was unprepared for it. So I called Betty Friedan and asked if there was a NOW chapter in Michigan. She said –
Marie Heyda: You came into competition in the political from men?
PB: In the business world. And she said no, there’s not chapter for NOW in Michigan, so I appoint you as convener of the entire State of Michigan. So I did. I convened the whole State of Michigan and organized the first Michigan NOW chapter and was president. Then I went on to be on the national board of NOW for five years, and they really needed me. I was the only lifetime Republican for it.
MH: Well, what about this particular convention?
PB: All right, now, I was more interested in international chapters for NOW and I convened twenty-seven chapters in twenty-five countries, and then I thought well why not get NGO, non-governmental status with the United Nations. And it took two years to get that, but we got NGO status just in time to be able to go to the Mexico City conference for IWY in 1975 and I was their delegate there and I was able to attend not only the regular sessions, but the other for the general public.
MH: I’m so glad to get this information.
PB: Well, it was extremely interesting for me to compare that meeting with this meeting. What a difference, because I feel the Mexico City conference was orchestrated to fail as much as possible – not by the United Nations but by the president of Mexico who –
MH: Was just pessimistic?
PB: No, indeed. He had aspirations, and I should say this is alleged but I believe this is fact and it’s been reported many times in The New York Times, that he had aspirations to be elected as head of the United Nations, and he felt that since the Third World countries held most of the votes that if you could sort of embarrass the United States and play them up that he would have a chance to be elected.
So when we came, the first thing he did was to see that the two different meetings were six miles apart on each side of town. You couldn’t even take a bus from one meeting to the other. You had to stop halfway and catch another bus. And there were teams of clubs of women who came in, Mexican women, who at a signal from a man who was on the side would start stamping their feet and saying, “Yankee, go home.” And I asked them about it and they said well, we were drilled to do this.
And you know that Mexico handed in that dreadful report, declaration saying that Israel was a Zionist state and so forth. But it backfired because the Jews in America became so angry at this Zionist statement that they totally boycotted Mexico, cancelled all their reservations, lost them millions of dollars, and eventually he lost his position as president. This is the little good gossip.
MH: Yes, this is good for the record, because when the historians write about this one they’ll have to go back to that.
PB: That’s true. So when I came here I was prepared for perhaps even disaster, even from the 20 percent women who were anti ERA, and I don’t think this is representative of the country because we knew already about what happened in Hawaii, that they bussed in so many Mormon women, and I think they have 63 percent Mormon women on the Hawaiian delegation, and it’s only 3.6 Mormon in the whole island. They only expected 2,000 at their conference and 4,500 came, so this is typical of what happened in certain states.
But I think when they came here women lost their naiveté about politics. They began to hear the viewpoint of women on welfare, disabled women, Native American women, and all of us, all of us learned from each other.
MH: And I think the state conventions need help (unintelligible at 4:59).
PB: Yes, yes. And I noticed that the New York newspapers came to different conventions, different delegations, and said how is it that you’re all voting together? How do you have such unity? And they said because we’ve been through every one of these issues in our home state.
MH: Our workshops are wonderful.
PB: Yes. Well, for instance, they went to Kentucky which is unusual. They all voted together and they said we made our decisions how we stand and this is how we’re voting. This truly will be as important as Seneca Falls.
MH: So it’s fulfilling all your expectations plus, isn’t it?
PB: Well, it is I’m happy to say. My particular tie in with Seneca Falls, you know they have a women’s hall of fame there and I am painting portraits of great living feminists to hang in that hall of fame. I’ve already painted from life Betty Friedan, Betty Ford, Gloria Steinem, Jean Stapleton. It was so good. I painted her this summer; Marlo Thomas.
MH: I think I’ve seen your portraits.
PB: Well, I was to bring them here for exhibition, but do you know that I couldn’t get them insured because they felt that there might be such catastrophe here that someone might slash the paintings, which is a sad commentary.
MH: I saw them at Lansing.
PB: Yes, that’s where it was, right. So instead, I came to do the work I had to do and I’m really very optimistic. Now we must go home and –
MH: Do you think that the president and Congress will implement what the conference has indicated is the wish of women?
PB: I don’t know. I don’t think President Carter, at his heart, knows what real women’s issues are. I think he teamed into civil rights to a certain extent, but he just doesn’t realize our needs.
MH: That’s our burden as a historian, to dig up all of this material and give it to him.
PB: I know, but any man that is against abortion doesn’t realize that women must be able to control their own bodies. And of course it’s almost a religious thing, I know, and he says all the right things, but he has not appointed as many women as he said he would to different posts and I’m really disappointed so far. Isn’t it odd when you look back that President Johnson did so much for women, almost more than all the other presidents? And he would seem the least likely to do it.
MH: Truman too.
PB: Oh yes, that’s true.
MH: Whereas Franklin Delano Roosevelt, just be token.
PB: And Kennedy started the status of women commission, but still, I don’t think his heart was really in it either.
MH: I think I’ve got the feel of what you’re saying there.
PB: But I believe now that women cannot be turned back. They’re going to more and more be assertive. They’re not going to take no for an answer. I’d like to see us get tougher.
MH: Do you want to say what you think is the most important one?
PB: Well, I can hardly pick one out. I think equal employment opportunity is very important, and child care. We’ve got to be realistic about that. I think that our minority women must have the proper opportunities.
MH: In the ERA.
PB: Well, the ERA of course, I love everything else. Of course if it doesn’t pass, I just cannot believe it would not pass because I just feel that women would get in the streets and be out of hand if they were denied this. I think that many of these things that we have voted on I might not even see in the next ten years, but I hope I see it in my lifetime.
End of Interview