Traverse City Record-Eagle

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November 17, 2012

Reflections of a Michigan first lady

TRAVERSE CITY — In 1988, Helen Milliken reflected on what it was like to become first lady of Michigan when her husband Bill became governor on Jan. 22, 1969. By training and by experience, she came as the traditional wife and mother.

She left Lansing 14 years later with a strong reputation of advocacy for the environment, women's rights and the Artrain.

Here is what she said in the book, "The Milliken Years: A Pictorial Reflection (1988), by Joyce Braithwaite and George Weeks.

"I was trying desperately to find my proper niche in the swirl, to juggle the invitations to what seemed like every school, every club, every banquet in the state. It soon was obvious that I could never respond fully to every demand made of me personally and of my time. I knew I had to decide what areas were both meaningful to me and could also be translated to the public good.

"Examining the options at that time, I decided the areas where I wanted to make a significant contribution, if at all possible, were the arts, the environment and the newly-emerging women's movement. If I were to list them now, the same area would be my choices but in the reverse order.

"The Equal Rights Amendment had passed in 1972, and I remember that I instinctively felt its significance. I was asked by a reporter for my view on it and thought to myself that this was an issue about which I'd better find out more.

"The more I became aware of its historical import, the more I saw its importance and related it to me personally. Now, when I see other women coming to this understanding later in their lives, I remind myself that no one was born to it, no one understands it in the beginning.

"Also in the early 1970s, the issue of abortion and a woman's right to control her own body was being illuminated. My husband and I had long felt strongly pro-choice. So there in my first few years as a governor's wife, the issues of pro-choice, the Equal Rights amendment and my own personal growth and readiness coalesced.

"It was an exhilarating new awareness. It still is. It is life-affirming.

"Yes, I wish I'd been aware of these things 40 years ago. But I wasn't. Each of us comes to it in her own way and in her own time. Many women my age cannot relate to any of it even yet. They haven't yet discovered fully who they are in the sense of becoming acutely aware of their own capabilities, their own needs, their own uniqueness. When I see someone refer to herself as "Mrs. David So-and-So," I realize that some cannot even claim the own names.

"My most gratifying contribution? Realizing that issues are important. It was gratifying to me to find that I was able to share with other women the meaningfulness of the women's movement, of living in this time. It's been a revolution as far as women were concerned in the last 20 years. A lot of them still don't know it. I regret that.

"Talking about an issue, striking a chord in other and awakening them to all that they area and all that they can be "¦ this is what is important to me and will be all the days of my life."

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