Helen W. Milliken, former Michigan first lady, dies at 89


Former Michigan first lady Helen Milliken died on Friday morning at her family's home in Traverse City. She had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, he said, and was receiving hospice care. She was 89. (AP)
November 16, 2012

Helen W. Milliken, 89, Michigan’s longest-serving first lady and a staunch supporter of women’s rights and environmental causes, died Nov. 16 at her family’s home in Traverse City, Mich. Her son, William “Bill” Milliken Jr., said she had ovarian cancer.

Mrs. Millilken’s husband, William Milliken, a Republican, succeeded George Romney as governor in January 1969 when Romney joined President Richard Nixon’s Cabinet. Milliken won the election that fall and was reelected twice but decided not to seek a fourth term in 1982.

Early in her husband’s political career, Mrs. Milliken dutifully played the role of unassuming, supportive spouse. But she evolved into an outspoken advocate of issues close to her heart during a record 14 years as first lady.

She vigorously campaigned for abortion rights and the ill-fated Equal Rights Amendment. She also drew the wrath of the outdoor advertising industry when she criticized highway billboards shortly after her husband became governor.

At her urging, her husband hiked in the Pigeon River State Forest, where he later limited development.

Mrs. Milliken served as national co-chair of ERAmerica and was a delegate to the International Women’s Year conference in Houston in 1977. She co-founded ArtrainUSA, an art museum housed in rail cars that has visited more than 850 communities across the United States since 1971. She remained active in community affairs and as an environmentalist into her 80s.

The former Helen Wallbank was born in Denver and graduated from Smith College in Northampton, Mass., in 1945. She met her husband when he was serving in the military in Colorado during World War II.

After marrying, they settled in his home town of Traverse City. William Milliken served in the state Senate before being elected lieutenant governor in 1964. He is now 90 years old.

Other survivors include a son, William Milliken Jr., of Ann Arbor, Mich.; and a sister. A daughter, Elaine Milliken, died in 1993.

Mrs. Milliken told the Associated Press in 2006 about her concerns that many younger women were shying away from political activism and the “feminist” label.

“They don’t know their history,” she said. “Young women take so much for granted now.”

Feminism, she said, had “been redefined and misinterpreted” by conservatives as wild-eyed radicalism. “Nobody ever saw anybody burn a bra,” she said. “They’re too expensive.”

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