Building on Helen Milliken's Legacy

Former Michigan First Lady, Helen Wallbank Milliken quietly passed away in her Traverse City home this week, leaving behind a passionate legacy for women's rights that I sometimes fear will fall on the deaf ears of subsequent generations, including my own.

After graduating from Smith College in 1945, she married her beau, and eventually served alongside him as first lady for a record-setting 14 years. She spent much of that time in very vocal support of women's issues.

Perhaps most notably, Helen Milliken fought tirelessly toward the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). For those not familiar with the history of women's rights in America, the ERA was written in 1923 by Alice Paul, a suffragist leader. Women had only gained the right to vote a few years earlier, via passage of the 19th Amendment, and suffragists considered the ERA to be the next step in guaranteeing equal justice.

The ERA was designed to ban discrimination based on gender, a practice that was all too common at the time. It was introduced into every session of Congress between 1923 and 1972, when it was passed and sent to the states for ratification. Then came a strong opposition movement led by Phyllis Schlafly, who believed the amendment would destroy traditional American values.

During these times, Helen Milliken was very outspoken in her support of the ERA. In 1980, she famously skipped the opening ceremonies of the Republican National Convention, which her husband was co-hosting in Detroit. She chose instead to attend a protest march outside the convention denouncing the party's decision to remove pro-ERA language from its platform.

Opponents of the ERA at that time argued that approval would mean drafting women into military service and eliminating laws regarding sexual assault and alimony. They even suggested that women would be forced by law to use the same restrooms as men.

A seven-year time limit in the ERA's proposing clause was extended by Congress to June 30, 1982, but at the deadline, the ERA had been ratified by only 35 states, leaving it three states short of the 38 required for ratification.

When the period to ratify expired, Helen Milliken, then co-chair of ERAmerica was quoted by the New York Times saying, "The Equal Rights Amendment will not go away -- we will not go away."

It is the spirit of those words that women need to honor in our thoughts, words, and actions, regardless of whether we favor an amendment or not. Women still do not hold a significant level of power in American society, and are denied basic human rights around the world on a daily basis. That cannot be acceptable.

As time has gone on, thankfully the debate over the ERA, has changed. (It has been reintroduced into every Congress since then.) Women's issues are less about the threat of being drafted into the military, and more about the right to fight for our nation in a combat situation. Alimony and child custody have been awarded to both men and women, as should be the case in a just and equal society. As for public restrooms, I suspect they will primarily remain separate to serve the desires of most people, rather than by law, as unisex restrooms certainly do exist outside of Ally McBeal.

In a more modern discussion about equal rights for women depicted in the West Wing, Rob Lowe's character of Sam Seaborn takes on Ainsley Hayes played by Emily Procter. At one point he states, "You know something like 40 percent of all women oppose the ERA and in my entire life I've never met one of them." In response, the young Republican sticks out her hand and shocks him with the words, "Ainsley Hayes, nice to meet you."

Later in the discussion he flat out asks how she can have an objection to the ERA and Ainsley replies, "Because it's humiliating. A new amendment we vote on declaring that I am equal under the law to a man? I am mortified to discover there is reason to believe I wasn't before. I am a citizen of this country. I am not a special subset in need of your protection. I do not have to have my rights handed down to me by a bunch of old, white men. The same Article 14 that protects you, protects me, and I went to law school just to make sure."

I remember watching that for the first time, and thinking it was brilliant, and restored my faith in why the country I loved had not ever managed to pass this amendment to protect my rights. I fundamentally wanted to believe what Ainsley said to be true. The sad reality though, is that it may not be, at least not in everyday practice.

We still have a very long way to go toward equality, yet we don't seem to spend nearly as much time and energy fighting for it as women like Helen Milliken did.

In order for these inalienable rights to be upheld and extended to all members of our society, the people in power must not only believe in them, but have a clear grasp of circumstances that violate them, in order to fairly interpret the letter of the law. How can we be sure of that interpretation, when those in power have so little personal experience with the issues? Can men really be expected to fully understand the women's perspective when it comes to working conditions, pay, medical issues, childcare, or violence?

It's 2012 and women compose nearly 51 percent of the American population, but just 16.8 percent of the U.S. Congress. Only 18 of the Fortune 500 companies are headed up by women. A mere six states currently have female governors, and we have yet to see a woman as president. These numbers need to change for the nation to equally care for all of its citizens.

I hope the passing of Mrs. Milliken will give us pause for reflection on the debt of gratitude we owe her generation, and those before her, as well as on the work yet to be done. Certainly our daughters deserve better examples of feminine success than the Kardashian empire built upon a sex tape, and can be better served than by the likes of Todd Akin or Richard Mourdack.