One of the drawbacks of Nevada’s turbulent population turnover is that its journalists often have little institutional memory to offer the public. It’s difficult, for example, to fully tell the Yucca Mountain story without knowing 50 years of Nevada’s relationship with the federal government on nuclear issues.
In 2002, I was working in a television newsroom when Howard Cannon died. He had been Nevada’s most powerful U.S. senator, but almost no one in the newsroom knew his name. I had to fight to get an obituary on the air. So I was pleased when the death of Maya Miller got some prominent attention. Even then, though, it did not adequately tell the tale of how she helped change Nevada.
Maya was the daughter of a Shell Oil executive, and as a result, lived a very comfortable life on the oil stocks she inherited, including ownership of a beautiful ranch in Washoe Valley. That didn’t keep her from working—her salary as an English instructor at the University of Nevada in 1946 was $800—but it meant that she did not live with the difficulties many people do. That made a lot of her political activities all the more surprising.
For a long time, she was a sort of society activist, involved with safe groups like the League of Women Voters, which she served as state president and a national board member. I remember an interview in which she explained how she ended up picketing the U.S. Census office in Reno in 1970 after a black woman was denied a census taker’s job. The League held a meeting, she said, and it was decided that one member could carry a picket sign. It seemed so delicate and polite.
But before the ‘70s were finished, she was one of Nevada’s best known political activists, and many of her activities were not one bit polite. For one thing, she was arrested at that census protest and convicted of obstructing police and resisting arrest.
It may have been a turning point. At any rate, she later resigned from the board of the League of Women Voters when the group failed to oppose the Vietnam War. And she became deeply involved in the politics of welfare, lobbying at the Nevada Legislature for better treatment and more respect for welfare recipients—who tended to be women and mothers—to help them get off public assistance.
In this cause, Maya was aligning herself with one of the legislators’ favorite targets, and it was a frustrating experience. It all came to a head with a well-known 1973 incident when legislators meeting with the welfare group had lunch brought in. They ate in front of the welfare group, which included some actual welfare recipients, and then offered the leavings to them. Maya grabbed the leftover hamburgers and fries and threw them on the floor.
You’d have thought she had thrown a bomb. Outrage filled the air. Legislators voted to bar her from the building unless she apologized. Faced with 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, I was passing a legislative security guard when the transceiver on his belt came alive: “Be aware—Maya Miller is in the building.”
Later in the year at the Watergate hearings, Maya’s name showed up on one of Richard Nixon’s enemies lists, used to target people for income tax audits and such unpleasantries. Soon afterward, one of Nevada’s U.S. senators announced his retirement, and she decided to run. (I was her press secretary.) Her insurgent, anti-Nixon candidacy was more successful than anyone expected and was within striking distance of a Democratic primary victory when Nixon resigned. Her poll rankings started falling, and she lost, but even then, she held onto 30 percent of the vote.
A few days after that election, Maya and her daughter Kit traveled to a hearing in Germantown, Maryland, where they testified against storage of nuclear waste in Nevada—a wholly unremarkable stance today, but near-heresy then. One outcome of her senate campaign was the state’s first anti-nuclear political group, Citizen Alert, founded by a couple of her campaign volunteers.
Maya became a leader of the national women’s movement, defeated Nevada’s lone U.S. House member in an election for chair of the Nevada delegation at the 1976 Democratic National Convention, and traveled the world working for peace in places like Guatemala and Iraq. She personally provided seed money for dozens of Nevada election campaigns by women, changing the face of state politics both literally and figuratively.
I remember the last couple of times I saw her. One was at a memorial for her son, a Parkinson’s sufferer who went swimming on the Tittabawassee River and was never seen again. She was desolate.
But not long after that, I also saw her in front of the Nevada capitol building, in the first rank of a huge crowd protesting against the war in Iraq. She never gave up.