“I really wanted to get away from this conservative tradition,” Ms. Helwig said. Ms. Helwig grew up in a traditionally Republican family but became a critical of the Eisenhower presidency in his final years, and formed her own religious faith, the Church of Moral and Visionary Reasoning. The Church also, she said, sought to be a counterweight to the “conservative dogmas” that she encountered.
Ms. Helwig arrived at Nordhoff in Los Angeles in 1988, at the height of the Desert Storm era, when she said it was difficult to find others who agreed with her. She was active with a local chapter of Black Women Organized to Fight Apartheid and the South African Solidarity Network at the time, participating in nonviolent protest events such as IWW Roundup, where participants banged on doors and sent postcards to Washington expressing their displeasure with Reagan’s foreign policy. The protests were routinely met with police harassment.
As she was preparing to begin attending classes at the Union Theological Seminary, which also offered a women’s studies program, she turned down an offer to become a teaching assistant on the thesis she planned to pursue at Boston College: how far a woman’s right to become a clergywoman should extend.
“This is my love,” she said, and Ms. Helwig could not understand why a college would allow a woman to accept the position of an assistant in their department without a dissertation proposal.
Ms. Helwig began working on her dissertation while doing many different things simultaneously, hosting writing workshops and classes, as well as raising her son, Todd. She worked full time, all the while actively looking for jobs that would let her keep up with the demands of parenting. And while she was not about to give up motherhood altogether, she was determined to not be trapped in a traditional working-mother role.
“I was going to work, but not working in a traditional part-time,” she said. “I was an activist — I was always doing things — but I was out there. I would have to pick up my son and mother him, and I would have meetings all day at 4 o’clock,” where Ms. Helwig said she kept mentally engaged with the issues happening in her community. She got a full-time teaching job at Boston College, where she worked for nearly 10 years. She spent much of her time writing and interviewing people — women, black men, black women — for her dissertation, and the work continued well into the 1980s. Ms. Helwig wanted to help her community build political power.
Though Ms. Helwig never finished her thesis, she now says she harbors no regrets about choosing to take the risk of removing herself from the traditional work place. She said she would work to promote the goal of women’s political and economic inclusion despite the decades-long stigma that society attached to “motherhood.”
“You can’t move forward,” she said, “if you have kids — you have to make this sacrifice.”