By SILU GUO
Capital News Service
LANSING – Helen Milliken, wife of former Gov. William Milliken, opened the door for first ladies from Michigan to become activists, according to Sandy Soifer, the executive director of the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame.
Milliken died Nov. 16 at age 89.
Milliken and Betty Ford are the only two first ladies who are commemorated in the Hall of Fame. Ford was married to Gerald Ford, who represented the Grand Rapids area in Congress before becoming vice president and then president.
“Milliken helped in preserving the establishment of women’s rights in our state,” Soifer said. “She also played an active role in helping us become more aware of our environmental issues.”
Soifer said Ford advocated substance abuse bills in Congress during her term as a first lady.
“They had their special interests and worked really hard to pursue them,” she said.
“Basically they picked their own job based on their own interest,” Soifer said. “As a political official you need to do what the office demands, but as a first lady you actually do things from your own interests.”
Bill Ballenger, publisher of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics, said, “You’ve got to remember that first ladies in Michigan don’t have any duty based on the constitution. They have to make their own idea of what they decide to do in terms of what their husband’s going to do.”
Ballenger said first ladies are either active or invisible to the public.
“Sue Snyder is the first one in Michigan history who has never lived in the governor’s residence since we have had one in the 1970s,” Ballenger said. Her husband became governor in 2011. “She lives in Ann Arbor and she is invisible to the public.”
Ballenger said Helen Milliken was also quiet and behind the scenes during her husband’s first term. “With time, she started to become more and more aggressive in certain fields like the environment, outdoor advertising and women’s rights.”
He said two main factors impact the role a first lady can play.
“The governor’s own role, their relationships with their wives and how comfortable they are can influence the role of first ladies,” Ballenger said.
For example, Ballenger said Williams Milliken and his wife Helen had a close marriage. “You got the feeling that Williams trust his wife Helen to use her own judgment and he didn’t discourage her from speaking out.
“They were close enough and she was sensitive enough that she had to be certain in what she said how far she could go,” he added.
Ballenger also said the changing times have pushed many first ladies more into the public eye. “It makes them more likely to speak out and become politicians.”
Republic presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s mother Lenore was the first first lady who had a private office in the Capitol when her husband George was governor, according to Ballenger.
“No law prevents first ladies from having their own office, but none of them had one,” he said. “In recent years, you saw more first ladies have their offices.”
He said once they become first ladies, they are well known and it encourages them to be more aggressive.
But after all, first lady is a temporary job, he observed. “They are wives and mothers and they need to go back home.
“Gov. John Engler’s wife Michelle was an attorney, but when they got married she gave it up and became a housewife,” Ballenger said. “I don’t think Sue Snyder is really a businesswomen. She pretty much is a wife with a strong personality.
Helen Milliken was a role model but went back to their Traverse City home with her husband when he left office.
According to Ballenger, the only first lady who started her own career after her husband’s term is Paula Blanchard Stone, who was divorced from ex-Gov. James Blanchard.
Stone devoted herself to public relations and opened a counseling company with offices in Detroit and Lansing.
Stone said, “I want to work and I need to work. I love my work and it is the best.”
She said her experience as first lady gave her skills to go into public relations.
Stone said the beauty of the position of first lady is that you have the freedom of choice to use the position.
“It gave me the opportunity to travel all over Michigan,” Stone said. “I visited all 83 counties and got to know Michigan and its people so well.”
But Stone said being a first lady is not always easy.
“The hardest thing is how difficult it is to live a normal life,” she said. “You give up a normal life and you give up your privacy.”
She said that for a while she suffered from being in that role because “I didn’t have an understanding of what that kind of life required as a first lady.”
Ballenger, from Inside Michigan Politics, said the public shouldn’t have any expectations for their first ladies, “but unfortunately human nature leads them to expect first ladies to bring something positive to the state.”