Betty Ford, the warm and candid wife of former President Gerald Ford, died on Friday in Palm Springs. She was 93.
Even when she was First Lady, Betty Ford spoke her mind. She spoke publicly about her struggle with breast cancer and subsequent mastectomy, supporting the Equal Rights Amendment, and differed with her husband on the subject of abortion, saying that having babies should be a “blessing, not a duty.” After she left the White House, her openness about her dependency on pills and alcohol changed the national discourse on addiction. She was a visible Republican feminist who once famously declared, “I do not believe that being First Lady should prevent me from expressing my views.”
Reading her obituaries, it’s hard not to admire Ford’s spirit and bravery. Born in 1917, she began her career as a dancer, and trained briefly with Martha Graham before returning home at her mother’s behest. After a brief, unsuccessful marriage, she married Gerald Ford (she was 30; he, 35), who was elected to Congress two months later. She was open, however, about the difficulties in following her husband’s career. By 1962, 12 years after her marriage, she was seeing a psychiatrist because she had “lost [her] feeling of self-worth.”
“I think a lot of women go through this,” she said later. “Their husbands have fascinating jobs, their children start to turn into independent people and the women begin to feel useless, empty.”
Ford, however, managed to fascinate the American people during and after her White House years. At a time when no one discussed cancer in public, she helped destigmatize the disease by talking openly about her breast cancer surgery. Many women said, later, that they sought out cancer examinations as a result of Ford’s honesty, and it’s easy to see why. When asked if she missed the breast, she said:
“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.” She told women who needed a mastectomy “go as quickly as possible and get it done.”
She discussed premarital sex (even saying that she suspected that her 18-year-old daughter, Susan, had probably had sex – a claim which Susan embarrassedly denied) and said frankly that she would indeed be sharing a bed with her husband in the White House. During the contested battle for the Equal Rights Amendment, she worked closely with the National Organization for Women to win ratification of the amendment in its final stages. And she continued defending Roe v. Wade and the ERA well into the 1980′s, even as the Republican party began to change dramatically.
As a recent college grad (who considers herself fairly well-versed in American feminist history), I never knew what an inspirational women’s rights advocate Betty Ford was. I did know about her commitment to helping people seek help for their problems with drugs, although I had no idea that even this issue was so intimately connected, at least for Ford, with feminism. Ford said that her drinking began because of her loneliness, low self-esteem, and anxiety about lack of a college education.
“On one hand, I loved being ‘the wife of’; on the other hand, I was convinced that the more important Jerry became, the less important I became,” she later wrote. This was despite the fact that she was enormously popular; there were 1976 campaign buttons which read, “Betty’s husband for president.”
Finally confronted by her family about her use of alcohol and pills, she eventually entered treatment, and inspired the Betty Ford Center. ”There is joy in recovery,” she wrote, “and in helping others discover that joy.”
There has been a lot of writing over the past few years about what conservative feminism looks like (if it exists at all), and it’s surprising that Betty Ford hasn’t been brought up more often. In some sense, it shows just how far right the GOP has moved since the 1970′s, when it “Republican feminist” (or “socially liberal Republican”) didn’t seem like such an oxymoron. It’s good, though, to remember Betty Ford’s significant contributions to American public discourse, to celebrate her long life, and to admire her personal and ideological convictions at a time when it was even more difficult, as a woman in the public eye, to speak out candidly about what she believed.
Photo from Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.