Portraitist, feminist Patricia Hill Burnett dies at 94

Michael H. Hodges

Friends and relatives Tuesday remembered Patricia Hill Burnett — Miss America runner-up, pioneering feminist and portraitist to the powerful — as a force to be reckoned with, an individual whose cheerful boldness opened doors long closed to women.

Burnett died at her Bloomfield Hills home early Monday. She was 94.

Patricia Hill Burnett painted many famous women, including Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

"Patricia was a giant in so many ways — as a woman, a feminist and a glamour queen, too," said Michelle Perron, a family friend who directs the Center Galleries at the College for Creative Studies. "The irony there is beautiful."

Burnett, a Miss Michigan who almost took the 1942 Miss America crown, was also a lifelong Republican feminist. She co-founded the Michigan chapter of the National Organization for Women in 1962. Ten years later, Republican Gov. William Milliken appointed her to the Michigan Women's Commission where she served four terms, including two as chairwoman. She also chaired the National Association of Commissions for Women.

Ruth Holmes, president of the International Women's Forum Michigan — another Burnett project — said her friend "led the charge, if that's the right word, when the Detroit Athletic Club was an all-male bastion. She rallied a group of women who were not going to go through the back door any longer. The club must have been surprised," she adds, "because they changed their rules."

Burnett also was a realist painter who did portraits of some of the century's most-famous women, including former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, feminist and author Betty Friedan, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and first lady Betty Ford. Most recently, Burnett painted the official portrait of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Astonished at her access, Scarab Club gallery director Treena Flannery Ericson once asked Burnett how she got to all those famous people.

"She said, 'Oh honey, I just called them,' " Ericson recalled. "And she did."

Burnett also challenged male privilege at the Scarab Club in the 1960s, as the first woman to be granted one of the coveted upstairs studios. In 1987, Burnett was inducted into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame. And in 2009, the College for Creative Studies awarded the Goucher College graduate an honorary doctorate.

"She was that amazing blend of feminist, artist and socialite," said daughter Hillary Burnett. Her mother, she added, took more pride in being voted "Miss Congeniality" by fellow Miss America contestants than she did in her status as first runner-up.

Other survivors include daughter Terrill Burnett, and sons Dr. Harry Burnett and William Lange. Burnett's third husband, Robert Siler, died in 2013.

The family plans a private funeral for after the New Year.