Patricia Hill Burnett

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Patricia Hill Burnett (5 September 1920 - 29 December 2014), born Patricia Hill, was an American portrait artist and women's rights activist. She was nominated to the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame in 1987.[1][2][3]

Life and education[edit]

Patricia was born in 1920 in Brooklyn, New York.[1] When she was a baby, her parents separated, and she lived with her mother. They lived in Toledo, Ohio. Later, her mother married a physician who worked at Henry Ford Hospital, and the family moved to Detroit, Michigan.[1][4][5][6] Patricia was Miss Michigan, and also was a runner up to Miss America in 1942. In the latter pageant, she was named "Miss Congeniality."[1][3] She also voiced the girlfriends of The Green Hornet and the Lone Ranger on their respective radio series.[4][7]

Patricia started creating portraits at a very young age. At the age of twelve, she earned a scholarship to the Toledo Museum of Art for four years.[2] She also sold portraits for 25 dollars at the age of fourteen while living in Toledo.[1] She graduated with a Fine Arts degree from Goucher College in Baltimore. For her graduate education, she studied at the Instituto Allende in Mexico and Wayne State University in Detroit.[1]

She married a surgeon, William Anding Lange, in 1945. They had one child together. She later divorced her husband. Later, she married Harry Burnett, who was a businessman. They had three children together.[1][2] Patricia became disaffected with life as a housewife, and this led her to read The Feminine Mystique and contact Betty Friedan. This started her activism.[1]

Career and activism[edit]

In 1962, Patricia was the first woman to be appointed to the Scarab Club, a collective of artists.[2] She reported discrimination there, due to being a woman. For example, while she was in the restroom, other members of the club would jiggle the restroom handle in an attempt to "set her on edge."[4][5] After a few months, however, they stopped and gave her a gold key for the restroom. She kept a personal studio at the Scarab Club until 1987.[4] She later went on to serve on the Scarab Club's board of directors for two terms.[5]

Patricia also advocated for desegregating other organizations so that women may join. She led the efforts to desegregate the Detroit Athletic Club.[5] Prior to this, the women had to enter the club through the back door. Patricia organized them to protest, and the club changed their rules regarding women.[5]

In 1969, she was tasked by Betty Friedan to start up and head the Michigan chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW).[1][2][4] She earned this position after being irritated by a male portrait client. Said client asked Burnett to sign her initials instead of her full name, as the client did not want anyone to know a woman painted the portrait. Patricia went on to sign her full name to the portrait.[1] Later, after reading Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, Burnett called Friedan and told her about her experience with the client. Friedan immediately named her chair of the then-non-existent Michigan NOW.[1] Patricia officially launched the chapter on March 30, 1969.[8] She served as its president until 1972.

Burnett went on to serve on NOW's international board. She organized NOW's first international conference in the fall of 1972, which had attendance from NOW branches in 22 countries.[1][5][3] She organized it along with Jo Ann Evans Gardner, Rona Fields, and Wilma Scott Heide.[9] The conference was held at Harvard Divinity School and Lesley College, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.[9] In 1972, Burnett was named to the Michigan Women's Commission by then-governor William Milliken.[3] She went on to serve four terms on the commission, two of which where she was chair.[4][1][3] In addition, she chaired the Association of Commissions for Women, co-founded Michigan's International Women’s Forum, served on the board of the Detroit International Institute, and co-convened the Michigan Republican Women’s Task Force.[1][3] Later, Burnett taught portrait painting seminars.[7][10] She also lectured for the United States State Department.[3]

Burnett's art appears in galleries in many countries.[1] Over the course of her life, over 40 solo shows featured her work. She painted portraits of many people, including Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Margaret Thatcher, Betty Ford, Joyce Carol Oates, Barbara Walters, Rosa Parks, and Indira Gandhi.[4][5][11][7][10][6] When asked how she got to paint those famous individuals, she reportedly remarked "Oh honey, I just called them."[10] She remarked that it took her three months usually to complete a painting to a point that she was ready to show it to her subject. She even would take down old paintings of hers that hung from her friend's walls, and update them.[11] She also painted floral still-life paintings in addition to portraits.[7]

Her autobiography is entitled True Colors: An Artist's Journey from Beauty Queen to Feminist, and was co-written with Jack Lessenberry.[5] It was released in 1995. Her personal papers are kept at the Bentley Library at the University of Michigan.[7]

After Patricia's husband's death in 1979, she later married Robert Siler. Siler died in 2013.[5][11]

Patricia died at the age of 94 in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan on 29 December 2014.[4][11] She continued painting until six months before her death.[4]


In 1974, Patricia was named NOW's feminist of the year.[4][1][11][6] In 1977, she was named as one of the world's Ten Most Distinguished Women by Northwood University.[1] In 1976, she received the Silver Salute Award from Michigan State University for her community leadership achievements.[1][3] In 2009, the College for Creative Studies awarded her an honorary doctoral degree.[10]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r "Our Fabulous Feminists" (PDF). Veteran Feminists of America. Veteran Feminists of America. Retrieved 25 November 2017.
  2. ^ a b c d e "Patricia Hill Burnett papers: 1967-2002 (bulk 1967-1987)". University of Michigan. University of Michigan. Retrieved 25 November 2017.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h "Patricia Hill Burnett" (PDF). Michigan Women's Hall of Fame. Michigan Women's Hall of Fame. Retrieved 12 December 2017.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Ockerman, Emma. "Artist, feminist Patricia Hill Burnett dies at 94". Detroit Free Press. Detroit Free Press. Retrieved 27 November 2017.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i Dalbey, Beth. "Patricia Hill Burnett - Artist, Feminist and, Ironically, Glamour Queen - Dies in Bloomfield Hills". Patch. Patch National. Retrieved 11 December 2017.
  6. ^ a b c Vachon, Paul (2013). Legendary Locals of Detroit, Michigan. South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing. ISBN 978-1-4671-0042-7. Retrieved 12 December 2017.
  7. ^ a b c d e Bert, Diane. "Artist Patricia Hill Burnett dies at age 94". Hometown Life. Hometown Life. Retrieved 12 December 2017.
  8. ^ Poremba, David (2001). Detroit in Its World Setting: A Three Hundred Year Chronology, 1701-2001. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. ISBN 0-8143-2870-9. Retrieved 12 December 2017.
  9. ^ a b Haney, Eleanor (1985). A Feminist Legacy: The Ethics of Wilma Scott Heide and Company. Inland Book Company. ISBN 978-0931911026. Retrieved 12 December 2017.
  10. ^ a b c d Hodges, Michael. "Portraitist, feminist Patricia Hill Burnett dies at 94". The Detroit News. The Detroit News. Retrieved 12 December 2017.
  11. ^ a b c d e "Patricia Hill Burnett, portrait artist, women's rights advocate, dies at 94". Crain's Detroit Business. Crain's Detroit Business. Retrieved 11 December 2017.