Maxine Berman was an open book. And she wrote more than one, apparently.
Twenty-five years ago this month, Momentum Books published The Only Boobs in the House Are Men: A Veteran Woman Legislator Lifts the Lid on Politics Macho Style by the sitting State Representative from the 36th District (Southfield).
Last year, two months after Berman’s death, her niece and nephew published her novel If You Seek A Pleasant Peninsula after finding the 500-page manuscript among their aunt’s belongings.
I didn’t really know Maxine Berman. Even if I did, I couldn’t top the eulogies by her niece — who followed strict instructions to play the Michigan fight song through the loudspeaker — or by Rabbi Steven Rubenstein of Congregation Beth Ahm who facilitated her bat mitzvah when she was age 60, though not her dog Garp’s bark mitzvah.
But I’ve read (most of) both of her books and that time we’ve spent together has helped me understand what it’s like to make your voice heard in a struggle that’s bigger than yourself; to be ferocious and vulnerable; to persist critically without becoming cynical; and to master the minutiae of your present reality in order to make major change possible.
Maxine’s words are nearly as powerful as the deeds she describes. She waded through political muck, facing down wanton misogyny in pursuit of progress over 14 years in office.
Whether from her directly or via Bree Linden — a protagonist alter ego she may never have intended us to meet — Maxine’s voice reflects, refracts and resonates:
“I was a naive first-term legislator with what I thought was a simple, straightforward bill, which only required doctors to hand patients a brochure explaining all the options.”
Maxine opposed term limits because she knew the learning curve of legislating — and because she anticipated that term limits would cut against the hard-fought gains women had made growing their presence and power in Lansing. (She was not term limited, mind you.)
“Rumor has it that Tom Ridley’s trying to screw me out of chairing reapportionment. I’m just trying to get in shape for the big fight, if there is one.”
Bree Linden’s fictional fight over redistricting is more dramatic than Berman’s, but not much. Both Bree and Maxine fought tooth and nail to lead a vital process, the product of which was ultimately usurped.
“Few other organizations can strike fear in the hearts of elected officials like Right to Life does. Their methods aren’t pretty; persuasion is not their long suit. They simply threaten political death.”
Many of Berman’s “wins” came in the form of fending off direct assaults on women’s reproductive rights. As appalled (if sometimes amused) as she was at the flagrant contradictions of the religious right, she knew that reason was no substitute for resources.
“He liked Bree Linden. He was also mildly afraid of her. Bo Hasker was never quite sure how to deal with the women of his caucus whose numbers, though small, were growing. Bree Linden was very much in the leadership of that group, but he could joke with Bree, drink with her, relate to her.”
How do you pry your way into an institution built, from the framed pictures on the wall to the length of the bathroom breaks, to keep you out? Instinctively and incrementally, with enough torque to make sure it doesn’t slam shut in the faces of those who would follow.
“Most important, the vast majority of women bring a different perspective on government … the perspective of the unempowered. Since the public generally views itself as unempowered in its relationship to government … we are far better able to identify with their standing, to listen to and understand their needs, to just remember that they’re there.”
Maxine was in the scrum, year after year, as women made progress inches at a time. Still, she managed to tease out the nuances of being a marginalized group that makes up 51 percent of the population, of being lumped together in spite of political diversity, of pursuing power without letting power become the point.
“First, he came for the poor, and you did nothing — because you are not poor.
“Then he came for the arts, and you did nothing — because you are not an arts organization.
“And now he has come for you. Who, pray tell, do you think there is left to protest?”
In her letter to the County Road Commissioners titled “Governor Engler’s Theft of Local Road Funds,” Maxine spoke to a vicious cycle she fought in office and as a private citizen — making groups fight over crumbs while shrinking the resources necessary to create public goods.
Finally, a quintessential and essential line of Maxine’s invoked by Rep.Jeremy Moss, a successor to “the ol’ Berman seat,” that would only be diluted by posthumous mansplaining:
“Throw me to the wolves, and I will return leading the pack.”