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Commentary: Helen Milliken

She was once a shy young woman from a wealthy family who typed her young husband’s papers for him when he was finishing college. She raised two children, worked in her garden, and dreamed of a degree in landscape architecture.

Later, she found her voice, and inspired other women to do so as perhaps no other Michigan woman ever has. She was a crusader for the arts, and the moving force and the first chair of the Michigan Artrain. She was in her fifties when she joined the National Organization for Women, and began fighting vigorously, if unsuccessfully, for the Equal Rights Amendment.

When it came to the issue of abortion, she was not only pro-choice; she felt that federal and state funds to end a pregnancy should be freely available to all women, and said so.

What made this especially unusual was that Helen Wallbank Milliken took those positions back in the seventies when her husband was governor of Michigan. A Republican governor of Michigan.

Milliken biographer Dave Dempsey reported that one of the founders of the Amway empire once asked the governor, “can’t you keep your wife under control?”  Bill Milliken never even thought of trying to tell Helen what to do or say.

Helen Milliken died early this morning at 89, after battling ovarian cancer for more than a year. Some who knew of her private ordeal were amazed that she lasted so long.

I wasn’t. I knew Helen Milliken, and was honored that she thought of me as a friend. She was a beautiful woman and an exceptionally strong person.  Thirty years ago, she made a state visit to China by herself after one of our perennial state budget crises meant that her husband, the governor, had to stay in Lansing.

That was before travel to China was common. But what made her trip especially unusual was that it came less than three weeks after she had a masectomy for breast cancer.

The Millikens left Lansing and returned to their Traverse City home thirty years ago, but she continued a life of quiet activism, becoming especially involved in fighting for the environment and for the victims of domestic abuse.  Once, a Democratic nominee for governor asked her to be his running mate. She thought about it, but decided that would do him more good than it would her.

Lana Pollack, a Democrat who represented Ann Arbor in the state senate for years, said that while Helen Milliken was a Republican, she was a role model for countless younger women in the nineteen seventies and eighties.

Helen was quietly proud of that. That doesn’t mean she was only about politics. She was equally happy to talk about gardening; I always found her more interested in whatever I was doing than whatever fascinating things she had been up to.

My guess is that she never quite realized what an impact she’d had on women of my generation, though she told a biographer that, “once the window gets open, it’s never closed. How far we’ve come,“ she said, adding, “but how far we have yet to go.”

She was talking about women, but that could also have been said about our state. Or indeed, about us all.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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