Three years ago, when her life was an example only of success and rewards, television anchor Liz Walker mused, "I want it all ... love, power, money, happiness, success. And why not? Why limit yourself?"

In recent weeks, however, the same broadcaster, one of the highest-salaried black women in the country at a reported $500,000 a year, has become a symbol of her generation's changing personal choices and a focus of hot controversy in the black community.

Walker, 36, the unmarried coanchor of Boston's most popular evening news show, disclosed several weeks ago that she is pregnant, intends to have the baby and would not discuss who the father was.

Her announcement has triggered a fierce public debate about childbirth and morality and the special social responsibility of a public figure who is black. She has been accused of selfishness, shortsightedness and betrayal, and defended as a courageous "new woman" making the most personal of decisions. Her decision has been hotly debated on radio talk shows, dissected in newspaper columns and argued over dinner tables. She herself, after initially commenting freely on her decision, has retreated into silence, stung by the controversy and outcry.

"I am talked out," she said, in declining an interview for this story. "I have had it. I am trying very hard to keep the one inch of privacy I have left."

The Liz Walker controversy is merely the latest in the contemporary debate over private choice and public responsibility that has sharply questioned traditional notions of marriage and the family. But the debate has resonated nationwide because it also touches such explosive issues as the much-discussed "crisis" in the black family and the epidemic of teen pregnancies, as well as such ever-present female concerns as the ticking of biological clocks and the shortage of marriageable men.

Walker, the highest-rated female broadcaster in Boston, is a memorable camera presence, nearly six feet in height, with a long, oval face almost overshadowed by large, dramatic brown eyes.

Born and raised in Little Rock, Ark., the daughter of a Congregational minister, she graduated from Olivet College in Michigan with a degree in theater and speech, and did graduate work at the University of Wisconsin. After jobs in Little Rock, Denver and San Francisco, she joined station WBZ in 1980, becoming weekend anchor in 1981. She is described by friends as shy, moody, sometimes difficult, but enthusiastic about her work.

Walker disclosed her pregnancy June 6 in the course of an interview with The Boston Globe. She said when she learned of it her first reaction "was that I would have something ... I can love and deal with the rest of my life." But then, she said, "I got scared thinking about being a public figure and knowing that what I do has an impact on people.

"If I could go to everybody, one on one, and say 'Let me explain this to you,' I would, but I can't," she said. "I am concerned that they won't understand because I'm single. They know me really well, but they don't know me at all. In not understanding, they may not approve, and in not approving, they may turn their backs on me. I need support from friends and viewers alike."

Walker got support from her bosses and coworkers at WBZ and a large share of her viewing audience in Boston. But she also got plenty of criticism. Her interview with The Globe ran inside the paper but the next day the Boston Herald made it front-page news. The outcry was prompt.

"At a time when we struggle in our community with teen-age pregnancy and unwed motherhood ... and we are trying to create proper values, this is precisely the wrong kind of signal to send," said the Rev. Earl Jackson, pastor of a Roxbury Baptist Church. "What she's doing is wrong."

Other ministers followed suit.

"She is very attractive, very articulate and she is black," said the Rev. Bernard McLaughlin, pastor of Holy Redeemer Church in east Boston. "Not only among the black kids but the white kids, she is a role model. By going public with The Globe and the Herald, she gave it a spin which made it very attractive."

WRKO, an all-news and talk show, picked up the debate for a couple of days. Its listeners were "fairly divided," said the program director. Jet magazine, a weekly black news digest, also carried a story about the flap.

Then right before Father's Day, the nationally syndicated columnist Carl T. Rowan published a column declaring Walker a "destructive" role model.

"This black TV celebrity obviously counts herself among the Jerry Halls, Mia Farrows and others who have thumbed their noses at the old social and moral conventions without fear of losing their jobs or their stardom," he wrote. "What we have is a national social tragedy, and I cannot see how a black TV anchorwoman in Boston or anyplace else would feel comfortable adding to it."

Four weeks after the original stories, two columnists in The Globe were still discussing the Walker case -- this time defending Walker. One of them, Mike Barnicle, discovered that one of Walker's clerical critics had fathered a child out of wedlock himself and refused to pay child support.

"This year there were more than 2,000 pregnant teen-agers in the Boston public school system," he wrote. "Next year there will be more. Not one will get pregnant because some black woman on TV decided to have a baby. Bank on it."

In the era of postfeminism and personal choice, why should there be such controversy about an intelligent, mature and economically self-sufficient woman having a baby without the benefit of marriage?

Faye Wattleton, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, says the discussion is akin to the parental concern over suggestive song lyrics and their possible impact on teen permissiveness.

"Should ... the adult with resources to provide finances, life options, love ... have the choice to make this decision without being married? Absolutely, it is her decision to make and I don't think it ought to concern other people. That being said ... people with high visibility in the public carry a burden that others don't have."

Eleanor Holmes Norton, professor at Georgetown Law School and former chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, agrees.

"I think {Walker} misjudges if she thinks a 13-year-old looks up to her and then suspends the notion of her as a role model for these circumstances," Norton says. "I have found young black people are more thirsty for role models than others and wrap themselves around role models very quickly ... I deeply feel and empathize deeply {with Walker} as a mother ... I recognize her clear ability to raise a child. But she is not the lady down the street."

For her own part Walker told The Boston Globe recently, "The one thing that I want people to understand is that it was a very personal decision with me ... I never advocated single parenting. I never said this is what the rest of the world should do."

Her defenders emphasize the personal and private nature of that decision.

"I am shocked at the vehemence of the criticism against Liz Walker," says Maureen Bunyan, an anchor at WUSA-TV in Washington. "Liz, or any other woman, has a right to decide what to do with her body and whether to have a child." Bunyan says the debate is sexist. "If the male anchor's girlfriend was pregnant, the male anchor would not suffer in any way. I think people should ask themselves what would happen if Liz Walker were Larry Walker. Would he be held up to this criticism?"

Other defenders see glaring differences of age and economics between Walker's situation and that of the teen-age mother who bears children into a lifetime of welfare dependency.

Joyce Ladner, a sociologist at Howard University who chaired the District of Columbia's Blue Ribbon Panel on Teenage Pregnancy Prevention, says, "We cannot say by any stretch of the imagination that this woman is encouraging teen-age pregnancy. She understands clearly who she is; even though circumstances are such that she doesn't have a husband, she knows she has enough to give a child."

Bunyan emphasizes "the difference between a mature, financially capable woman making a decision and an immature, financially incapable woman making a decision."

Barbara Harrison, a reporter and anchor for WRC-TV in Washington, suggests such distinctions may be too subtle for much of the viewing public.

"The public really feels they know you. And I think people feel that children will think, 'If you do that, I can.' "

Harrison supports Walker's personal decision but says the role model impact reaches much further than its influence on teens. "The fact that she is black is a fact to be reckoned with because some people think we have a different set of morals ... We do have to work to be aboveboard."

Others, however, point out that some views of morality are, in fact, different for many blacks.

"Many black middle-class women are alone," says Renee Ferguson, a reporter with WMAQ in Chicago. "That is no reason for them not to have children. Whose standard is that? It is not mine."

Ferguson was 36, divorced and working at CBS News in New York when she got pregnant two years ago. "I never thought it was a stigma." Many black people, she says, "don't look at {any} children as illegitimate. There is this tradition of nurturing and loving."

Lurma Rackley, 38, deputy director of communications for D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, also rejects what she calls a "forced morality." Rackley, who has never married but has a 10-year-old son, says, "It is unacceptable for me {for people} to insist upon marriage for motherhood. Motherhood is natural, marriage is man-made."

In the last 20 years, as a few women moved into higher-paying jobs, postponed or skipped marriage and postponed parenthood, more women, both black and white, have decided to have children alone. A new government survey reports that births to unmarried women in 1985 reached an all-time high. The National Center for Health Statistics said 30 percent of births to unmarried women in 1985 involved mothers 25 and older, compared with 24 percent in 1980.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of never-married women in managerial or specialty occupations who have children under 18 increased by 129 percent in the last six years, from 41,000 to 97,000.

In a readers survey conducted by Working Women magazine last year, 20 percent of the respondents said they had children out of wedlock. Sixty percent of the unmarried women polled said they had considered becoming single mothers.

This situation in general, believes Judie Brown, president of the American Life League, a conservative profamily group, is unacceptable. "It is demeaning to the traditional family," says Brown. "It is an extension of the feminist philosophy that women can have it all. That has been disproven."

Among black Americans, where 55 per cent of all babies are born to unwed mothers, the future of the black family was called by Ebony magazine last year "perhaps the biggest crisis blacks have faced since slavery."

But Hortense Canady, president of Delta Sigma Theta sorority, a black service organization that has spearheaded international discussion on single parenting, believes new structures for the family ought to be considered. Mature single mothers, she says, "are selfless." The older single mother, she says, "forms a family unit in a sense ... It doesn't mean the family hasn't support."

But for some black leaders, Walker's case has produced some disturbing dilemmas. James Comer, a noted child psychiatrist at Yale University, is "disappointed" in Walker.

"If pregnancy was not a major problem for young black women it would be less an issue," he says. He adds the discussion should also be viewed in the context of the civil rights movement. "She and a lot of other black people have their positions because a lot of other people sacrificed. I believe we have an obligation to sacrifice and give up a lot of our individual needs and help the next generation," says Comer.

The Walker discussion has also refocused the concern expressed by many professional women about what they see as a shortage of marriageable men.

In the aftermath of a highly publicized study at Yale and Harvard universities last year alleging that the older a college-educated woman is, the slimmer her chances of finding a mate -- data since disputed by the Census Bureau -- Walker joined a panel discussion on "Donahue."

"My career was very, very important. When I first heard about this study I was overwhelmed, because suddenly I was a statistic. I don't think that we look at our lives as statistics, you just live your life day to day. It hasn't been so much what I've missed as it is what I've chosen to do ... I have some very special friends in my life. There are some younger men in my life. I think if you open your options up and you look at things a little differently ..."

In a interview three years ago with The Globe, Walker said, "There's a lot of pressure being the black anchor in Boston, the role model, part of the 'only one' syndrome. I ask myself every day, 'How can I get up and carry that weight?' That's the strength I have to have ...

"I look at my friends with children and I think I want kids, but I'm just not sure. Why get married? To legitimize myself for economic stability? I don't need that. Do I want to have love? Yes. But does it necessarily come with marriage? I don't think so."