Millie Peterson, a longtime former Utah state senator, dies

(Tribune file photo) Former state Sen. Millie Peterson.

Millie Peterson, who at one time was the only female member of the Utah Senate, died Monday. She was 75.

An administrative assistant at the University of Utah Medical School and for Valley Mental Health, Peterson was elected to the Legislature in 1990 and was one of just three women in the state Senate that year.

Soft-spoken but unafraid to say what she thought, Peterson routinely referred to the body as the “old boy’s club.”

It was not an exaggeration, said Delpha Baird, one of the trio of women elected to the Senate in 1990.

On the first day of her four-year term, then-Senate President Arnold Christensen called Baird into his office and “he said this is just like a high priests quorum,” she recalled, referring to an all-male group in a congregation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “Some of them were quite resentful that a woman would be in there.”

While of different parties — Baird was a conservative Republican and Peterson a fairly liberal Democrat, “we were friends,” Baird recalled. “She did a lot of good.”

After Baird was defeated in her 1994 reelection bid, Peterson spent the next four years as the lone woman in the Senate. Three others joined her in 1999, including Karen Hale, who recalled the close-knit relationship the small group of women enjoyed in what was then, and still remains, an overwhelmingly male bastion.

The four enjoyed the same kind of “cameraderie and unity” that Hale said she recognized in the recent walkout of all six female senators to protest a bill to mandate pre-abortion ultrasound screening.

"Millie would say what she thought and had strong convictions,” Hale said. "So at times she was a thorn in leadership’s side.”

That was on display in the 2001 redistricting when her West Valley City and Magna district was redrawn to push into Tooele County and she was forced into a bitter nomination race with fellow Democrat Ron Allen.

Allen was favored by most of their male counterparts, Democrat and Republican, including then-Senate President Al Mansell, who pumped his fist and let out a whoop when he learned that Peterson was defeated at the 2002 state Democratic Convention after 12 years in the Senate.

Current Senate President Stuart Adams expressed condolences on Twitter.

“I was saddened to learn Sen. Millie Peterson passed away Monday. As a state senator for 12 years, she championed legislation safeguarding health and families,” Adams said. “She will be fondly remembered for her kindness, intelligence and humor.”

Jan Peterson, younger sister to Millie, said Peterson wasn’t happy about being one of the few female senators, but she was proud to be one of them.

“She said, ‘Even if I am the only woman, I will be heard.’”

She would spend hours on the phone with constituents and wanted nothing more than to represent them on Capitol Hill, Jan Peterson said.

“She was a fierce fighter for [friends, family and voters] and for causes” such as taking the sales tax off food, equity in contraception, insurance coverage of childbirth and other issues.

“It wasn’t about the perks for her, it was about the people.”

Peterson, long retired as a social worker and administrator, had health problems, including a 45-year battle with diabetes. In December, she had a fall, suffering two broken ankles. With underlying health issues, she never fully recovered.

She is survived by four siblings and numerous nieces, nephews and friends.

A private interment will be held for her immediate family. A celebration of her life will be held sometime in the future, after the coronavirus threat subsides.

Rather than flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the American Diabetes Association or suggests the simple planting of a tree or some flowers in her memory.

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