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February 9 2016

Charlotte Hays

When Marlene Mieske, a prominent supporter of libertarian and conservative-leaning causes, attended her first lecture on libertarian principles, encouraged to take in the discussion by husband Neal Goldman, the philosophy seemed strikingly familiar.

"When I was growing up, there were three things that I heard about constantly at the dinner table," Mieske recalls, "First Amendment rights, Second Amendment rights, and property rights. That's what so stunned me about the Cato event. It wasn't a new concept to me. It was something I heard at the dinner table. I always took it for granted."

Mieske had imbibed these values from her Kinderhook, New York, upbringing. Her father was a union member and her mother was a nurse. The town of Kinderhook was historic--Henry Hudson named it, and eighth U.S. president Martin van Buren was born there--and it was small. Mieske's grandfather was Kinderhook's mayor, the water commissioner, and president of the Chamber of Commerce--all at the same time.

"I grew up knowing a little bit about how small town government works," she says. "Papa was sometimes called out to their houses by little old ladies who thought that they had a squirrel in the attic. That was part of being mayor."

Since Kinderhook had no kindergarten, Mieske began first grade at the age of five. She later belonged to two 4-H Clubs and rode horses.  She still maintains her Kinderhook roots and recently hosted a New York City cocktail party for John Faso, who announced his bid for the 19th Congressional District from the front steps of his Kinderhook house (where an adolescent Marlene Mieske did some babysitting). Faso, a Republican, is a former state assemblyman and 2006 gubernatorial candidate.

Nevertheless, like many people who grow up in idyllic communities like Kinderhook, Mieske was eager for a career in a larger world. She left Kinderhook to attend the Albany Memorial School of Nursing (her mother Lillian's alma mater) and later earned, with honors, bachelor of science and master of science degrees in nursing from Boston College. It was an exciting time for women who had gone into nursing. "It was the beginning of nurses being able to do a lot of procedures that formerly only doctors could perform," she says. As a result, nursing became a highly competitive field and one with brutal hours.  

One night Mieske repeatedly resuscitated a patient whose heart had stopped several during the night. When he asked, "Why couldn't you let me go?," Mieske began to question whether competitiveness with other nurses was the reason she had done it. "It was a heady time for nurses. We were competing with residents to do advanced procedures," she remembers. "I began to wonder if I had lost sight of why you do nursing. It was an introspective time. I began to question my practice. This dovetailed with an opportunity to do something else." The something else was psychiatric nursing, which, as an added benefit, had more predictable hours. Mieske has held prestigious positions in the field of psychiatric nursing, including serving as coordinator of the Special Studies Clinic at Massachusetts General Hospital. While Mieske was at Mass General, the clinic conducted important clinical research into the treatment of schizophrenia and major depression.

While in Boston, during the early 1960s and '70s, Mieske participated in one of the most consequential transitions in the mental health field: de-institutionalization. She helped implement the policy of de-institutionalization. De-institutionalization was supposed to help long term mental patients leave their institutions and lead meaningful and independent lives utilizing community clinics. It didn't work that way. So many of the homeless people we see on the streets are there because of de-institutionalization policies which make it very difficult for family members to get help for the mentally ill. In short, it was a disaster.

"It was a top down program," Mieske says. "When the government imposes something like this on people, it may be a way to get the ball rolling. But they didn't provide for follow-up care for people who were released from state hospitals. A lot of people who were taken from state facilities, and there was no place for them. People ended up being homeless or in SRO, which are hellish and worse than the state hospitals. Also, communities weren't prepared. The stigma of mental illness was a big factor. People said 'Oh, there are all these crazy people on the streets."

Clinics were supposed to be established to provide help for the newly-released, but many clinics found it more to their liking to provide services for people dealing with neuroses rather than the seriously mentally-ill who were suddenly on their own. "Money always gets diverted away from the seriously mentally ill," Mieske says, "partly because of the stigma of mental illness, partly because the mentally ill lack strong advocacy on their behalf, and partly because this problem is a tough nut to crack."

Unlike AIDs sufferers, who were able to lobby the government for research funding, Mieske says, the mentally ill still don't have enough vocal advocates because people are less willing to talk about how mental illness has affected their friends of family. "We need some people of stature or in government to talk about mental illness in their families," she says. "The fact that a lot of people have come out and are talking about autism is a big step."

Although Mieske loved psychiatric nursing, she realized that, as the soon to be divorced mother of two children, she needed to make more money. An opportunity presented itself, and Mieske embarked on an entirely different career path: working on Wall Street. She was offered a position in a training program with Lehman Brothers. She completed the training period of around a year with flying colors and was offered a coveted  position on the bond desk. There was just one drawback: Mieske didn't love this work.

When she told her boss she was going to leave, he was incredulous. He kept telling her that everybody knew she would be a big success at Lehman. But Mieske explained, "I do not love what I am doing, and I will not be a success doing anything that I don't love." She left without the next job lined up--but feeling confident about the future.

She was proud that she had done well in a field that really wasn't for her. "I left thinking 'I can do anything I want to do.' That was a turning point for me," she recalls.

Mieske cobbled together three part-time nursing jobs, one at Hunter College, another at City College and a third for the Red Cross. Three months later she received a call from the Chairman of Psychiatry at Lenox Hill Hospital. He offered her a great job: first director of psychiatric nursing at New York's Lenox Hill Hospital. Mieske played an important part in opening the first psychiatric inpatient unit at Lenox Hill and establishing the first support group for hospital staff working with AIDS patients in the early 1980s. She subsequently worked as a nurse in a day treatment program for people dealing with mental illness and drug addiction.

Somewhere along the line there was another transition in Mieske's life: she met Neal Goldman, founder of Goldman Capital Management and a former vice president at Shearson Lehman Hutton, at a school bus stop. Mieske and Goldman were married in 1994. They live in New York and she has two children and he has three. One of her sons is a chef in New York and the other, a graduate of the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, is a restaurateur who has just opened, to rave reviews, a restaurant called B & B Butchers in Houston.  

As a couple and separately, Mieske and Goldman are active as philanthropists supporting causes they believe promote liberty. He, for example, was a longtime member of the Board of Directors at the Reason Foundation--while publishes Reason magazine--while she is a longtime member, and currently vice chairman, of the board of directors at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which defends free speech, due process, religious freedom, and equality on American campuses. She says she is impressed that she has never once seen FIRE reject a case because of a board member's personal philosophy or beliefs.    

One of the other causes dearest to this psychiatric nurse's heart: Fountain House. Located in New York, Fountain House is  "dedicated to the recovery of men and women with mental illness by providing opportunities for our members to live, work, and learn, while contributing their talents through a community of mutual support."  

"Fountain House is not a traditional treatment center," Mieske explained to the Philanthropy Roundtable last year. "It was founded in 1940s by patients recently released from a state hospital. Under the original title, “We Are Not Alone,” they created a common space to find a job, begin an education, or get a date for Saturday night. Its core ingredient is community: members helping other members achieve their aspirations in life."

Mieske believes that reforming disability laws would go a long way towards helping people with mental illness get on their feet. "Almost all of our members are on disability benefits," she explained to the Philanthropy Roundtable. "Often people are ready for a full-time job but are hesitant because they are terrified of losing their benefits. Our goal is to help people attain independence, but it is an ongoing struggle with the way current government benefit policies work."

Although Mieske and her husband are stalwarts of the libertarian movement, she is concerned that libertarians are becoming too doctrinaire. "For me the whole libertarian concept is free minds, free markets, and lots of tolerance. What I am finding with a lot of libertarians is that they are not different from staunch Democrats or staunch Republicans. They want you to take the whole package. I am concerned that they are trying to push the envelope and that this is not necessary."

Mieske and Goldman are at present trying to support more causes that make a direct difference. One of the contributions they have given up--with obvious reluctance--is a scholarship program for children. The couple had sponsored a child for years, but then they realized that the education they were getting goes against the grain of everything Mieske and Goldman believe. Students are taught that capitalism, both in public and private institutions, is bad, but, says Mieske, "It's the capitalist system that is making possible the money to put a child in these schools and give them a start. Then you read that the graduates are going to vote for Bernie Sanders."

Mieske's penchant for strong opinions recently attracted the notice of the New York Post. When presidential candidate Ted Cruz criticized "New York values," as a way to get at Donald Trump, New Yorkers, even conservatives, had conniption fits. Some demanded an apology and some who had contributed to the Cruz campaignwent so far as to say that they wanted their money back.  The Post called to ask Mieske, a Cruz donor: did she want her contribution back?

Wrong question. “If I could legally double my money, I would give it to him,” said the undaunted Marlene Mieske. She added that New Yorkers “criticize anybody who is not from New York . . . If anything, I’m not invited back to dinner parties ­because I don’t espouse the same [liberal] views.”

How sad for the dinner circuit! If anybody could be a great dinner partner, it is the opinionated Ms. Mieske.

Read more Portrait of a Modern Feminist features >> 

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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