Date of Birth: April 17, 1946
Date of Death: March 2, 2018
Place of Birth: Detroit, Michigan
Maxine Berman may be best known for her fourteen-year term in the Michigan State Legislature, but those who knew and worked with her recall not only her advocacy and integrity, but also her grit and humor. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Michigan and former English teacher at Oak Park High School (her alma mater), Berman was elected to the state legislature in 1982, representing the 36th District, covering Southfield and Lathrup Village. During her tenure as a state representative, Berman served on several committees, including chairing the House Elections Committee, where she worked on voter registration and campaign finance reform; sitting on the House Bipartisan Team, where she was instrumental in creating new systems for funding Michigan’s public schools; spending six years on the House Appropriations Committee; and serving as the Assistant House Floor Leader.
Deeply committed to women’s health, Berman championed legislation related to breast cancer, including a bill that made Michigan the first state in the country to require accreditation of mammography facilities. Berman lobbied the federal government for national accreditation standards, testifying before the US Senate in 1991. The US government passed a law the following year based on Michigan’s model.
Berman was a strong voice for women’s rights, including reproductive rights and advocating for female political candidates, having chaired the Michigan Women’s Campaign Fund, a bipartisan organization that raises funds to help women get elected. The Michigan Council for Maternal and Child Health named her Legislator of the Year, and she received many other awards for her work, including the Hannah G. Solomon Award from the National Council of Jewish Women, a Leadership Award from the Karmanos Cancer Institute, and the Wonder Woman Award from the Women’s Survival Center, among others. In 2015 Berman was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame. In her acceptance speech, she said, “To my past, present, and future women colleagues in the Michigan legislature: Never give up the fight. Never. It’s worth every minute of it.”
In 1994 Berman published a book about her experiences in the legislature called The Only Boobs in the House are Men. Acerbic and sharp, the book details the sexism that pervaded the Michigan State House in the 1980s and 1990s. To that end, Berman supported and encouraged many female candidates, mentoring office-seekers and office-holders on both sides of the aisle.
Before she stepped down from the Michigan State House in 1996, Jack Lessenberry profiled Berman in his Politics & Prejudices column. He called her “a politician to be proud of” and went on to say that she was “a legislator one never needed to worry about. Berman virtually always did the right thing, for humanity and for her district, usually in that order.” In the profile Berman was quoted as saying, “I never do anything that prevents me from looking myself in the rearview mirror when I walk out of there each night. I tried as hard as I could to better as many lives as I could.” Her integrity was one of Berman’s signature traits.
Crain’s Detroit Business named Maxine Berman one of the Most Influential Women of 1997. That same year Berman started her own business, Capitol Strategies, Inc., which emphasized advocacy training and political consulting. She also served as the executive director of the Women’s Health Network of Michigan and director of Michigan Menopause Action Team, both of which she helped found. In 2003 she was appointed Head of Special Projects for Governor Jennifer Granholm, a role she served in until 2010. She was named the Griffin Endowed Chair in American Government at Central Michigan University in 2009, the first woman to hold the position. That same year she also became a bat mitzvah, at age 70, at Congregation Beth Ahm in West Bloomfield, with Governor Granholm in attendance. Most of Berman’s writings and papers are now in a collection at the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library.
Maxine Berman is remembered not only as a principled politician and advocate, but also as a thoughtful gift-giver, book lover, dog enthusiast, caring community member who gave great advice, and lively, sharp-witted spitfire. Her sister, Barbara Disner, recalls: “Her strength of character and obstinacy enabled her to accomplish goals that a lesser personality would not have been able to do. . . . [She was] a leader whose integrity could never be questioned. She fought for what she believed in and was true to her values.”
Written by Amy Rothberger