5 Things To Know About Betty Ford, “Stealth Feminist” And First Lady

Betty Ford is not a First Lady most of us think about regularly (unless, I suppose, one is an addict). She lacked the glitz and glamour of Michelle Obama or Jackie O and was not necessarily a powerhouse in the White House like Eleanor Roosevelt. But when Betty Ford died on Friday at age 93, obituaries remembered a women’s rights activist who was uncommonly outspoken for her time and polled more popular than her husband, Gerald Ford. In addition to her foundation of The Betty Ford Clinic, one of the most famous rehab centers in the country, Betty Ford should also be remembered as a Republican “stealth feminist,” blogger Joanne Bamberger at PunditMom wrote.

After the jump, five things to know about Betty Ford, a surprisingly cool First Lady.

  1. Born Elizabeth Bloomer in 1918, Betty studied dance under the iconic instructor Martha Graham and worked in New York as a model. While employed at a clothing store in her home state of Michigan, she met her second husband, a lawyer and wannabe politician named Gerald Ford. He rose through the ranks of Congress to House minority leader, while she raised the couple’s four children. In 1973, President Richard Nixon picked Gerald Ford to replace Spiro Agnew as vice president amidst the Watergate scandal. Gerald Ford served as vice president for only eight months until Nixon resigned in 1974 and the Fords found themselves in the White House.
  2. Betty Ford supported legal abortion, praising the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision as “the best thing in the world … a great, great decision.” On a 1975 appearance on “60 Minutes,” Ford famously said she “wouldn’t be surprised” if her then 18-year-old daughter had (gasp!) premarital sex and that she would want to advise and counsel her daughter about it. Ford also voiced her hope for a woman to join the Supreme Court. Feminist activist and Ms. magazine co-founder Gloria Steinem once said she “felt better knowing that Betty Ford was sleeping with the president.”
  3. Betty Ford also supported the Equal Rights Amendment, a proposed amendment to the Constitution which stated, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” At a 1981 rally in support of the ERA, Ford told the crowd, “We are at the point of demanding recognition. Demanding recognition of our the right to equality. I intend to be on the front lines until the success is ours.” Despite its simple premise, the ERA faced opposition from staunch conservatives (including women like Phyllis Schafly, who spooked Americans by warning that ratifying the ERA would force women into the military draft). To this day, the damn thing has never been passed.
  4. In 1974, Betty Ford had a mastectomy on her right breast after doctors discovered cancer and underwent chemo for two years. When asked during an interview if she regretted having her breast removed, the Times reports, Ford replied, “No! Oh no, heavens, no. I’ve heard women say they’d rather lose their right arm, and I can’t imagine it. It’s so stupid. I can even wear my evening clothes.” Her public battle with breast cancer encouraged women to get checked in a time when doing so was much less common; according to the L.A. Times, the American Cancer Society said requests for breast cancer screenings rose 400 percent. As she told “60 Minutes” in 1975, “I thought there are women all over the country like me. And if I don’t make this public, then their lives will be gone or in jeopardy. And I think it did a great deal for women as far as the cancer problem is concerned.”
  5. Betty Ford’s addiction to pain pills started in 1964 to alleviate a neck injury. Her dependence on alcohol progressed throughout her husband’s political career — in part, she later admitted, because of loneliness while he was away for his demanding job and feeling that she was “just his dumb wife.” Her family and friends staged an intervention about her substance abuse in 1978, after the Fords left the White House — she later admitted to Barbara Walters that she gulped 20 to 30 pain pills a day — and she eventually sought treatment. With the financial backing from the former ambassador to Belgium, the Betty Ford Center debuted in Rancho Mirage, California, in 1982. Throughout the ’80s, she attended AA meetings at the Betty Ford Center and won praise from other celebrity addicts like Elizabeth Taylor for her good works.

Betty Ford will be laid to rest next to her husband in Grand Rapids, Michigan. If readers find any good articles about Betty Ford and her impact on women’s rights, please share them with us in the comments.

[Los Angeles Times]
[New York Times]
[NPR]
[Wikipedia: Equal Rights Amendment]
[PunditMom: Betty Ford, Stealth Feminist And Role Model]

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