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Commentary: Remembering Helen

Thirty-four years ago, when Debbie Stabenow was a newly elected state representative in a very male-dominated legislature, she got the first of a number of encouraging notes from an older woman who had spent a lot of years in the fishbowl of politics.

Those notes meant a lot to Stabenow, as she went on to become a force to be reckoned with in first the state house and then the senate; in Congress and  finally in the U.S. Senate.

What made that support all the more remarkable is that Stabenow is a Democrat. And the woman who reached out to her was the wife of the Republican governor, Helen Milliken, perhaps the least likely and most effective feminist in Michigan history.

Helen Milliken died last November at age ninety, after a long battle with ovarian cancer. Yesterday, some of the many whose lives she touched gathered in an auditorium in Traverse City for a memorial tribute to one of the most remarkable women I’ve ever met. Remarkably, she never asked for a life in the public eye.

As her longtime friend Joyce Braithwaite Brickley remembered yesterday, Milliken was perfectly happy with the life she had until her mid-forties, raising her children and tending her gardens in Traverse City. Then her husband was elected to the state senate and later became lieutenant governor. And then the governor resigned.

And for the next fourteen years, Helen Milliken would serve as first lady of Michigan. Before long, she found her voice. She used that voice to fight injustice, to fight for the environment, but most of all, to fight for women. She never had to worry about money or abuse.

But she knew plenty of women had to worry about both. One of her greatest causes was the Equal Rights Amendment; its narrow failure was among her biggest disappointments.

Thirty-three years ago, the Republican Party held its first and only national convention in Detroit. They came to Motown in large part because of the efforts of her husband, Governor William Milliken.

When that convention refused to endorse the ERA, Helen hit the streets to protest. There were those thought she embarrassed her husband. But the truth is, she made him proud.

I had the privilege of getting to know Helen Milliken in the last twenty years of her life. She was both gracious and down to earth, and loved to talk about books and ideas. Towards the end of her days I wrote to tell her that while she was a role model for women of my generation, I thought the ripple effect from what she did would have even a stronger effect on women too young to remember her.

Sitting quietly near me at the service was Janet Blanchard, who followed Helen as first lady. Terri Lynn Land, who that day had declared her candidacy for the U.S. Senate, also had the good sense to be there. So was Governor Snyder.

The governor’s remarks were warm and classy. But I had to wonder what Helen might have said if she’d known that at last week’s Mackinac conference, the governor had a PR person passing out stickers that urged women to be a “Rick’s chick.”

My guess is that she would have sighed, “we’ve still got a lot more work to do."

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