Elizabeth "Betty" Ford

Elizabeth "Betty" Ford

She wore a mood ring and pantsuits. She liked disco and danced the hustle. She was pro-choice, pro-ERA, and pro-women in general. She had been divorced, seen a psychiatrist, and been diagnosed with breast cancer. In many ways, Betty Ford was like a lot of other American women. But unlike many of her predecessors as First Lady, Betty Ford used her position to focus attention on the issues important to her, discussing them candidly in public. In so doing, she became one of the most outspoken First Ladies in American history.

Elizabeth Ann Bloomer was born in Chicago in 1918. Two years later, her family moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where Betty spent her childhood and young adulthood. Upon graduating high school in 1936, Betty began a dance career, joining the world famous Martha Graham troupe. When her dance career stalled, she moved back to Grand Rapids and worked as a fashion coordinator at a department store. In 1942, she married Bill Warren, a union that lasted only five years before the couple divorced. In 1947, Betty met a young Grand Rapids lawyer and aspiring politician named Gerald ("Jerry") R. Ford. Their courtship moved quickly, and Betty and Jerry married in October 1948. At the time of their marriage, Jerry was running for a seat in Congress; the two spent their honeymoon on the campaign trail.

Jerry Ford won election to the U.S. House of Representative in 1948; Grand Rapids' voters would send him back to Washington for an additional twelve successive terms. With their lives now centered around Congress, Jerry and Betty moved to Arlington, Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C. While Jerry's political career blossomed—by 1965 he was the Minority Leader in the House—Betty assumed more of the responsibilities of raising the Fords' four children and running their home, in addition to attending to the social obligations that normally befell a successful congressman's wife. Betty led a hard, stressful, and sometimes lonely life in which, she later admitted, she often felt unappreciated and ignored. Because of these trying circumstances and a painful medical condition, she developed addictions to alcohol and painkillers. President Richard Nixon selected Gerald Ford to fill the recently vacated vice-presidency in 1973. When Nixon resigned in August 1974, Vice President Ford took over the Oval Office. Betty Ford became First Lady and immediately one of the most recognizable women in the United States. As the wife of the vice president, she had made waves by announcing her support for the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. During her two and a half years as First Lady, Betty continued to display her independent streak, a trait she later attributed to the women she considered her role models: her mother, the dancer Martha Graham, and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

A little more than one month after moving into the White House, hardship struck the Fords' personal lives. Doctors diagnosed Betty Ford with breast cancer. She quietly underwent a radical mastectomy that removed her right breast and lymph nodes in her armpit. The operation proved a success. But it was Betty Ford's decision to discuss with the public her battle with breast cancer—a sensitive issue which had often been avoided in polite company—that impressed the nation, earned her the respect of millions, and possibly saved the lives of thousands of women because Betty's openness sparked a national discussion about the disease and its treatment. As a result of her frankness, the First Lady's office was inundated with mail, donations flooded the American Cancer Society, and thousands of women made appointments for breast exams.

As First Lady, Betty Ford discussed a wide range of issues that many Americans found controversial or uncomfortable. Addressing a psychiatrists' convention, she revealed that she had undergone psychiatric counseling beginning in the 1960s and that she had found it helpful. By recounting her experience, she helped lessen the stigma associated with such care. She also supported, and actively lobbied for, passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). She said that the amendment would not be "an instant solution" providing for women's equality, but believed it would "help knock down those restrictions that have locked women into old stereotypes of behavior."Betty Ford's work on the behalf of women was tireless. She hosted meetings in which federal commissions discussed the status of women and was instrumental in her husband's Executive Order that marked 1975 as International Women's Year. She also urged the President to consider women not only for cabinet-level positions and Supreme Court vacancies but as candidates for the vice-presidency. Although she encouraged women to pursue career aspirations of their own, Betty Ford also celebrated women who chose to stay at home. She maintained that whether it was "a career in the home or outside, what is important is that she make that decision herself—without any pressures to restrict her choice." She did not define the liberated woman as one who had a career, believing "[a]nyone who feels good about what she's doing in the home should have the same sense of liberation" as someone with a job outside the home. Not only did Betty believe housewives should have the "same sense of liberation" as career women, she thought they should have similar compensation, including Social Security benefits. She even called for the First Lady to be given a salary for her duties as hostess.

Betty Ford's beliefs—and her willingness to speak publicly—sometimes created controversy. In August 1975, she appeared on the television show "60 Minutes," repeating her support for the ERA and calling the Supreme Court judgment in Roe v. Wade "a great, great decision." She also compared the young's use of marijuana to her generation's consumption of beer, asserted that premarital sex might lower the divorce rate, and declared that she would not be surprised if her eighteen-year-old daughter were to reveal that she was having an affair. Her comments offended and enraged many Americans. Some demanded her resignation—even though she could not technically resign from her position. Others, in contrast, praised her as "a crusader in the finest tradition of Eleanor Roosevelt"; her approval rating reached 75 percent in the months following the broadcast.

Betty Ford's public comments aroused such varied responses because, in the words of the historian Sara Evans, "by 1970, 'women's lib' was on everyone's lips." During the 1970s—as the women's movement reached its full force, power, and diversity—Americans hotly debated sex and gender relations and women's roles in American society. By publicly commenting on the ERA, on Roe v. Wade, and on career women, Betty Ford entered this political, social, and cultural cauldron. Ford was no fire-breathing radical—her support for Roe v. Wade and the ERA actually put her in the political and cultural mainstream—but these and other issues aroused such passion that she became an easy target for those Americans suspicious of the changes wrought (and sought) by the women's movement.

Upon leaving the White House in January 1977, the Fords retired to Rancho Mirage, California, and Betty's addictions to alcohol and medicine grew more troubling. At her family's urging, she entered a treatment program at Long Beach Naval Hospital. The American public, after learning of her decision, applauded her courage in confronting her addiction problems. After successfully completing treatment, Betty dedicated herself to helping others who suffered from similar ailments. The Betty Ford Center opened in 1982 and has since become one of the preeminent treatment programs for people with alcohol or drug addictions. Betty served on its board of directors. She died on July 8, 2011.

As First Lady, Betty Ford left a legacy both inside and outside the White House. She helped remove the stigma from seeking psychiatric help, alerted thousands of women to the deadly dangers of breast cancer, and promoted appreciation of women as both housewives and career professionals. After returning to private life, she battled her own addictions and dedicated herself to helping others with similar problems. Because she addressed contested political and cultural issues, Betty Ford is often credited with building on the legacy of Eleanor Roosevelt. Indeed, because of her activism, visibility, and candor, Betty Ford empowered and brought more prestige to what she called her "twenty-four-hour-a-day volunteer job." A woman of her time, Betty Ford became an exceptional First Lady for all time.