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Reflecting on the life of Patricia Hill Burnett

Jack Lessenberry

Patricia Hill Burnett was a folk hero of sorts in a most unlikely way. Wealthy, glamorous and Republican to the core, she was nevertheless a feminist who was a co-founder of the Michigan chapter of the National Organization for Women back in 1969.

She became a legend in Detroit, where she might hold court one day at the fashionable Midtown Café, and the next day lead a sit-in at the Detroit Athletic Club, which then did not allow women.

Anyone who was anyone wanted her to paint their portrait. I once asked her what she thought the essence of feminism was? She smiled. “Never say no unless they ask you if you have enough.”

She believed a woman should have it all.

She didn’t fit the stereotype of a feminist, or indeed any stereotype of any kind. She always dressed to the nines, dripping with jewelry and wearing a picture hat.

She said “my idea of casual is to take off one ring.” Yet she was more than a rich society matron who survived three husbands.

Once, soon after founding NOW, Burnett went to see Betty Friedan in New York. She arrived as Friedan was setting up a televised press conference with a group of women, including a defiantly breast-feeding radical and a black militant.

“Would you be willing to appear on camera with these women and say you are all sisters under the skin?” Friedan asked.

“Why, of course,” Patricia said.

She then asked if Patricia was a Republican. When she said, “Why, yes,” Friedan exclaimed. “Thank God.”

Twenty years ago, Burnett invited me to lunch to see if I might be interested in writing her autobiography. That wasn’t the sort of work I do, but I went to lunch just to meet her.

Naturally, she charmed me into doing it, in part because I thought it would be an interesting challenge to write in the voice of a woman of my mother’s generation. It was an amazing experience. We had virtually nothing in common, but became lifelong friends.

This led to my once having the difficult task of straightening things out when she accidentally invited both Geoffrey Fieger and John Engler to the same party when they were running against each other in a nasty campaign for governor. I won’t say how I did it.

I will say, however, that she managed to be friends with both of them, painting portraits of the Engler triplets and of both Fieger and his most famous client, Jack Kevorkian, whom she adored.

I learned last night that I wouldn’t be able to keep a promise I made on her 94th birthday this September. She asked me to be the MC for her hundredth birthday party, and of course I said I would. But Patricia died yesterday, surrounded by her four children.

She never stopped painting and never wanted women to stop fighting for equality. She was among the last of a breed of Republican women who included Helen Milliken and Betty Ford.

But most of all, she was a true original, whose autobiography was called, appropriately, True Colors. A lot of us will miss you, Patty.

When it came to you, we never did get enough.