Maya Miller Papers

Identifier: 95-107

Scope and Contents

The Maya Miller Papers cover the years 1954-2003 and are contained in 8.25 cubic feet. This collection represents information and materials accumulated and saved by Maya Miller throughout her years as a political activist, humanitarian, and philanthropist. Much of this material is related to Miller’s involvement with the Operation Life Board of Directors and her efforts to reform welfare laws. However, there is also information and material that pertain to Miller’s global humanitarian efforts and to a smaller degree, her personal life. These papers offer valuable insight into her life and work. This collection includes correspondence, news clips, reports, newsletters, brochures, agendas, bulletins, and interviews. Preparation of the collection was made through the generous support from the Orchard House Foundation.

The papers are arranged into seven individual series: Series 1: Welfare Reform, Poverty, and Discrimination; Series 2: Native American Issues; Series 3: Democratic Party; Series 4: 1974 U. S. Senate Campaign; Series 5: Central America Issues; Series 6: Miscellaneous Activism and Issues; and Series 7: Interviews. Any audio/visual resources have been placed into their corresponding series, as have any awards or certificates of recognition. It should be noted that some of the League of Women Voters materials appears in several different series, but the subject matter corresponds to that series.

Series 1: Welfare Reform, Poverty, and Discrimination, contains materials and information from Maya Miller’s involvement with the League of Women Voters, Operation Life, and Women’s Lobby, Inc. The purpose of these organizations during the late 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s was generally the same—to promote fairness and equality beyond race and gender, to encourage women to become politically active, and to offer assistance in the form of federal welfare benefits to those in need, particularly women and children. This series encompasses materials regarding local welfare initiatives in Nevada as well as on the national level. The bulk of materials are administrative files from the board of directors of Operation Life. These include agendas, correspondence between board members and staff, some news clips, and administrative planning reports. This series also includes correspondence, lobbying information, brochures, promotional materials, news clips, and agendas from the both the Nevada and national branches of the League of Women Voters and Women’s Lobby.

Series 2: Native American Issues, is comprised of materials and information relating to Native American activism and activism undertaken on behalf of Native Americans. The majority of the material relates to water controversies surrounding water allocations from the Truckee River to the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. This was a result of the California-Nevada Interstate Compact, which was ratified in 1969, and the preceding resistance to the compact by the Sierra Club and Nevada League of Women Voters. These institutions believed that the compact was discriminatory to Indian interests, and with respect to Pyramid Lake, environmentally unsound. Lobbying efforts against the compact, represented in this series, intensified between 1968-1969. Also included are news clips regarding the Indians of Alcatraz demonstration in 1970, and the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota by 200 Oglala Lakota and followers of the American Indian Movement. These materials largely tie in with Miller’s concern for issues of social justice and environmentalism and includes legal documents, news clips, some correspondence, and literature on Indian rights and culture.

Series 3: Democratic Party, contains materials and information about the Democratic Party and politics, but nearly all the materials relate to the role of women in the Democratic Party in the 1970s. This includes items from the National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC), an organization founded in 1971 with the purpose of standing against sexism, racism, institutionalized violence, and poverty. The NWPC also sought to train feminist women candidates for public office, reform party structure to ensure women equal decision-making power, register more women voters, and work for equality in the delegate selection process. This series includes materials from the Women’s Education for Delegate Selection workshop, which assisted women in becoming delegates for the 1972 national party conventions. There is also a fair amount of information and material regarding the Democratic mini-Convention held in Kansas City, Missouri in December 1974 where NWPC Democrats argued for affirmative action and other women’s interests. The 1974 mini-convention was a precursor to the 1976 Democratic Convention held in New York City, which was the first convention in many decades where women’s issues played an important role. Delegation selection was important for the convention because feminists were finally being taken seriously as political players. All of these events were occurring before and after Miller’s 1974 campaign for the U. S. Senate; however, these events represent the growing influence of women in national politics. This series includes correspondence, delegate selection materials, agendas, news clips, and information regarding Miller’s position as the Chairperson for the Nevada Delegation and delegate for the Democratic National Convention.

Series 4: 1974 U. S. Senate Campaign, includes materials from Miller’s 1974 U. S. Senate campaign where she ran against Nevada's Lieutenant Governor Harry Reid (D-NV). Although Miller lost to Reid in the Democratic primary, she did receive 33% of the votes, and her campaign revealed that there was a base of women’s electoral groups that were willing to support her. In later years her daughter, Kit Miller, said that Reid would contact her mother to discuss issues and seek her support. Miller ran on a platform of sound management and planning that would put the American wage earner and taxpayers ahead of special interest groups. Not being a career politician, she also emphasized “ordinary citizens” taking back their government and having it work for them rather than against them. This series includes a great deal of news clips (some removed from scrapbooks), financial statements, a campaign press packet, oversized campaign posters, statements, campaign buttons, radio spots, and some correspondence.

Series 5: Central America Issues, is a representation of Miller’s interests and work outside of Nevada and the United States. Miller was long interested in the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, and believed that U. S. intervention in Central America was unnecessary and injurious. She was particularly concerned about the indigenous Miskito of the Atlantic Coast Region, the poorest group of Nicaraguans. Throughout the 1980s, Miller made several trips to Nicaragua with MADRE, the worldwide women’s rights organization, and another educational tour through Mexico, Guatemala, and Nicaragua in 1986 with Funding Exchange to learn about the humanitarian and developmental needs of the region. In Nicaragua, Miller was in contact with people that were close to the politically complex struggles including Sandinista leaders and the Miskito people. Miller respected both sides of the Miskito-Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) and overall hoped to support peace. One particular focus of Miller’s trips to Nicaragua was the construction of a “Peace House” in Puerto Cabezas. The house was headquarters for international peace keepers during the 1980s, when many feared the U. S. might invade Nicaragua. Miller was also interested in the “Peace Ship” project, a project supported by the Norwegian government and Nobel Laureates Adolfo Perez Esquival and George Wald, to deliver much-needed food, medicine, and other products to the Nicaraguan people. The ship was to be accompanied by a mine sweeper to check for mines in Nicaraguan ports laid under the direction of the CIA. This series includes correspondence between Miller and MADRE as well as correspondence with Funding Exchange regarding trips to Central American. Also included is itinerary, news clips (in Spanish and English), memoranda, and some handwritten notes.

Series 6: Miscellaneous Activism and Issues, contains materials that did not fit within the other series. They include some very early literature from women’s voting groups dating to the 1950s, general administrative bulletins, correspondence, and issue briefs from the Women League of Voters covering the years 1963-1971. Also included in this series are odds and ends consisting of handwritten notes on the formative years of the feminist movement, some brief biographies on Miller, general news clips covering her life, certificates and awards, speeches, and promotional materials from the Foresta Institute and Washoe Pines summer camp.

Series 7: Oral Interviews, consists of both transcribed copies of interviews and digital recordings. Many of these interviews were conducted throughout the 1990s, and one in the early 2000s, mainly by her daughter, Kit Miller. The interviews cover a variety of subjects including Miller’s childhood, her involvement with Operation Life, her aversion to the Vietnam War, Washoe Pines Ranch, her campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1974, and even her brief involvement with the Black Panthers. Aside from typed copies of the interviews and audio, there are also several video interviews included in this series. There are clips of Ruby Duncan, a fellow fighter for women's rights, as well as a 1992 interview with Maya Miller and Marty Makower filmed at Miller’s home in Washoe Valley.


  • 1954-2003



Collection is open for research. Materials must be used on-site; advance notice suggested. Access to parts of this collection may be restricted under provisions of state or federal law.

Biographical Note

Maya Miller (née Paine) was born on June 29, 1915 at her parents’ home in downtown Los Angeles. Her father, Paul Paine, of Baltimore, worked as a petroleum engineer, one of only two independent oil appraisers in the United States. Before becoming a consultant, Paine maintained a position as the vice president of the Shell Oil Company in California. Her mother, Olivia Newman of Riverside, California, came from a successful family of California pioneers who made their money in the hotel business. It was, however, money passed down from Maya’s father’s investments in the oil business that would eventually allow her to finance and support philanthropic causes in the public interest without fear of economic pressure, and without owing favors in return for funding.

During Maya’s childhood, her family moved from MacArthur Park in downtown Los Angeles to Beverly Hills where she received her primary education at Berkeley Hall. In the 1930s, Maya attended Principia High School in St. Louis, Missouri, and the newly relocated Principia College in Elsah, Illinois where she received a Bachelor of Arts degree and met her soon-to-be husband, Richard Gordon Miller. Following the completion of her undergraduate education, Maya went on to earn a Master’s degree in American Literature from Cornell and afterward completed all but her dissertation for a PhD in English at Stanford.

In 1939, Maya married Richard Miller, now an ichthyologist (fish scientist). During World War II, Richard joined the navy and served in the Pacific while Maya worked for the war effort in San Francisco. Following the war in the early 1950s, the couple moved to Nevada to reside on a small farm located in Washoe Valley just outside of Carson City. For two years Richard held the position of Director at the Nevada State Museum, later joining the faculty of the University of Nevada as a professor of biology and conservation. Maya too worked briefly for the University teaching English before leaving to take care of their two children, Eric (1953), and Kit (1955).

In 1961, the couple purchased Washoe Pines Ranch, a notable former divorce ranch from the 1930s. This property became the headquarters for the Foresta Institute, a non-profit center for the study of ecological and social problems. Beginning in the summer of 1962, it also became the location of an outdoors ecology camp for children, which specialized in natural and Western history. Every summer, children from inner city communities, rural Nevada, and wealthy eastern suburbs learned how to live together while studying Nevada’s unique ecosystems. Washoe Pines Ranch (and Orchard House located next door on the property) served as a meeting place and incubator for many progressive and environmental projects, and Orchard House would remain Maya’s home for the rest of her life.

Interested in social betterment, environmental issues, and progressive politics, Maya joined the Nevada League of Women voters. Soon after joining she became president of the local Reno/Carson chapter beginning in 1964 and began studying Nevada lands, water and other resources, and their distribution. Working with the public and Nevada Legislature to purchase nearly 40,000 acres of public land, Maya helped establish Lake Tahoe State Park. In studying Nevada water, Maya learned of the fragile state of Pyramid Lake and the Paiute tribe’s fight to restore the lake. With seed money she aided the legal case that was eventually brought in front of the Supreme Court with a favorable outcome.

Later on in 1968 Maya became the director of poverty and race issues for the National League of Women Voters. She immersed herself in the study of race and poverty in Nevada and was involved with the Race Relations Center and Job Corps. As the key poverty analyst for the National League, Maya pushed the traditionally staid organization to a radical position on welfare. Miller proposed that the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) federal assistance program be expanded to give compensation for what she saw as the economically valuable work of mothering. In 1971, Maya resigned from her position with the League of Women Voters when the organization voted down a resolution proposing to end U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Consequently during this time, Maya and Richard earned themselves spots on Richard Nixon’s Enemies List—making them two of the three Nevadans on the list.

In the early 1970s, Maya became involved in the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO)—a movement directly correlated with the long civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 60s. Not long afterward, she became engaged in the plight of a group of poor disenfranchised black mothers in Southern Nevada. The welfare rights movement in Nevada began as “Operation Nevada,” a grassroots movement led by Ruby Duncan and fomented by other poor black mothers living in West Las Vegas, many of whom had been employed by the casino industry at one time or another. In 1971, Operation Nevada was responsible for staging a non-violent, direct action sit-in on the Las Vegas Strip to protest the lack of assistance offered to the poorest segment of the population in Las Vegas. Welfare grants did not pay enough to live on in Nevada. In fact, the state’s attitude toward welfare was evident in unwillingness to accept federal welfare funds in any capacity for twenty years following the passage of the Social Security Act of 1935. To many Nevada residents and politicians, the welfare system seemed contrary to the image of rugged self-determination that so many westerners cherished. Even after accepting federal welfare funding, the state maintained strict stipulations for recipients.

Throughout the early 1970s, many poor recipients, primarily single black mothers, had their benefits cut, reinstated, and then reduced. Nevada State Welfare Department Director and opponent of Maya Miller, George Miller, was suspicious that welfare recipients were defrauding the state. He did everything he could to cut off needy families for a variety of poorly justified infractions. Throughout all this, the black welfare mother became a sort of “bogeywoman,” a scapegoat for the ills of the welfare system in the United States. As Operation Nevada gained momentum due in part to important allies like Legal Service Lawyers, radical priests, and activists/benefactors such as Maya Miller, it evolved into “Operation Life Community Development Corporation” (CDC).

Operation Life functioned as an antipoverty corporation operating out of the abandoned “Cove” casino in West Las Vegas. Maya served as the Chairperson for Operation Life’s Board of Trustees for 18 years beginning in 1972. By offering job training, a low-income health center, childcare, and a library, members of Operation Life worked to better the condition of Las Vegas’s poor Westside population, and eventually effect change on a national level. Among Operation Life’s local achievements were petitioning to have the state of Nevada accept food stamps, the creation of a Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) supplemental nutrition program in Las Vegas, and Early Periodic Screening for Children.

At the insistence of Sue Wagner, Frankie Sue del Papa, and other Nevada women leaders, Maya ran for the U.S. Senate in 1974 at a time when there were no women in the Senate. She lost the primary Democratic election to then Lieutenant Governor Harry Reid. Reid then lost in the general election to Republican Paul Laxalt. Maya later commented that she ran for the Senate seat primarily to break through the male stronghold in Congress. Maya was never a consummate politician, more of a self-described “outside agitator” fighting the powers that be for the disenfranchised, under-represented, and subaltern.

After the campaign Maya helped found the Women’s Campaign Fund, which raised money to elect women to office. In the spring of 1976, following her divorce from Richard, she moved to Washington, D.C. part-time to help create the Women’s Lobby Inc., the first organization in the nation’s capital devoted full-time to lobbying for women’s issues. Some of these issues included securing adequate welfare benefits for the poor and needy, job training, employment rights for women, reproductive rights, and greater support for victims of domestic violence.

During the 1980s, Maya concerned herself with human rights and U.S. foreign policy. She travelled to Latin America to oppose the U.S. support of dictatorships and to promote peace efforts. She went to post-Apartheid South Africa and Cuba to understand race and restitution, and in 1991, in violate of a U.S. embargo, she and other women drove trucks full of children’s hospital supplies into Iraq.

Other Nevada efforts that Maya was involved in included startup groups such as the Committee to Aid Abused Women, Citizens Alert (the state’s first anti-nuclear political group resulting from Maya’s Senate campaign), Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, and the Nevada Women’s fund. She also was an opponent of Reagan’s proposed MX missile system, and the planned Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada. Her alliances with these groups and many younger people helped to inspire her until her death.

Maya Miller passed away on May 31, 2006 at her ranch in Washoe Valley, she was 90 years old. It can be said without hyperbole that Maya Miller served as an inspiration and mentor for an entire generation of political activists, progressive thinkers, and justice seekers. Her legacy lives on in her accomplishments in Nevada and abroad. She is remembered fondly by those she worked with, befriended, and encouraged.


8 Cubic Feet (10 boxes)

Language of Materials



Materials cover the life and work of philanthropist, feminist, political activist, and one-time Nevada U. S. Senate candidate, Maya Miller from the years 1953-2003. The collection includes correspondence, speeches, campaign materials, news clips, agendas, bulletins, reports, and audio/visual resources with particular emphasis placed on Miller's position as Chairperson on the Board of Directors for the Las Vegas-based community development corporation, Operation Life.


The papers of Maya Miller are arranged into the following seven series:

Series 1: Welfare Reform, Poverty, and Discrimination

Series 2: Native American Issues

Series 3: Democratic Party

Series 4: 1974 U.S. Senate Campaign

Series 5: Central America Issues

Series 6: Miscellaneous Causes and Issues

Series 7: Oral Interviews

Immediate Source of Acquisition

This collection was received in two separate donations with the initial donation from Maya Miller in 1995, and supplemental materials arriving in 2014 from her daughter Kit Miller.

Related Materials

93-48: Ruby Duncan Papers

93-24, Nancy Gomes papers

Other related printed materials on these subject, particularly Operation Life and the welfare reform movement can be found in Storming Caesars Palace : how Black mothers fought their own war on poverty , written by Annelise Orleck (Boston: Beacon Press, 2005). Record number b2337639. More information on this book is located here:

82-15, League of Women Voters of Nevada records (1951-1970s)

93-34, League of Women Voters of Nevada records (1960s-1993)

Separated Materials

Photographs have been removed from this collection and placed in the Special Collections Photo Archive under collection number UNRS-P2015-06.

A Part of

Nevada women's archive



A Guide to the Papers of Maya Miller
Edan Strekal
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the University of Nevada, Reno. Special Collections Department Repository

Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center
1664 N. Virginia St.
Reno Nevada 89557-0322 USA
775-682-5724 (Fax)