First Lady Elizabeth Anna (aka “Betty”) Ford served alongside her husband, Gerald Ford, the 38th President of the United States, from 1974 until 1977. Unlike many First Ladies before her, Betty was outspoken and approachable, tackling many thorny issues of the time.
Born Elizabeth Bloomer in 1918, Ford studied dance with, among other instructors, the famed Martha Graham. She worked as a fashion model and performed with a dance company at New York City’s Carnegie Hall. Betty’s mother objected to her daughter’s choice of work and insisted that she return home to Chicago. She did so and eventually married insurance salesman William Warren, whom she later divorced. She met political hopeful Gerald Ford, who asked her to marry him after a very brief courtship. Gerald (aka Jerry) was running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, so they waited to marry until just before Election Day. The New York Times reported, “Jerry was running for Congress and wasn’t sure how voters might feel about his marrying a divorced ex-dancer.” At the time, he had no idea how much the public would grow to know and love Betty.
After years in Congress, Gerald became the highest-ranking member of the Republican Party in the House of Representatives. In 1973, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned during the Watergate scandal and Ford was appointed the new Vice President by President Richard Nixon. When Nixon resigned, Ford became acting President of the United States.
Betty was a warm and popular First Lady and was known for speaking her mind of hot topics of the day, including equal rights for women, abortion, marijuana usage, and gun control. During her tenure, she spoke openly of her support for the supposed Equal Rights Amendment and lobbied hard for its ratification. Time called her America’s “Fighting First Lady” and named her a Woman of the Year in 1975.
Mere weeks after becoming First Lady, Ford revealed that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. Her openness made headlines and spurred conversations about breast cancer that were once considered taboo. Betty’s willingness to speak about her diagnosis encouraged more women to seek examinations—and reported cases of breast cancer grew. This phenomenon was called the “Betty Ford Blip” and Ford was credited with saving the lives of women across the country.
Following her husband’s years in the White House, Ford remained a strong force in the women’s movement and was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the second National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year. She worked alongside other First Ladies Johnson and Carter to promote equal treatment for women. Betty remained a fervent supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment for the rest of her life and was outspoken in her disappointment in its failure to be ratified.
In later years, Ford became an unexpected proponent of addiction treatment. Betty had developed a dependence on opioids that she began taking in the 1960s for a pinched nerve. In her 1987 autobiography Betty: A Glad Awakening, she wrote, “Now I know that some of the pain I was trying to wipe out was emotional… 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.”
In 1978, Betty’s family and doctors staged an intervention. After her initial refusal to admit her problem, she eventually underwent a medical detox and entered Long Beach Naval Hospital for drug and alcohol treatment. She received no special handling during her stay, sharing a room with other patients, cleaning the facility as part of her responsibilities, and undergoing therapy. Upon her release, just as with her breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, she made knowledge of her addictions and treatment public. Ford once again realized that as First Lady, she had the privilege and power to potentially destigmatize addiction.
With the assistance of her longtime friend, Ambassador Leonard Firestone, Ford co-founded a non-profit addiction center, known as the Betty Ford Center, located in Rancho Mirage, California. It is still regarded as one of the best chemical dependency treatment facilities in the world. She wrote, “From the beginning, we have wanted every patient at the center to feel, ‘I’m important here, I have some dignity.’”
In addition to her 1987 book, Ford also wrote Healing and Hope: Six Women from the Betty Ford Center Share Their Powerful Journeys of Addiction and Recovery. In 1991, she was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George H.W. Bush. She also received the Congressional Gold Medal and the Woodrow Wilson Award for public service. In 1999, both President and Mrs. Ford were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for “dedicated public service and outstanding humanitarian contributions.” Since her death in 2011, she has remained a revered figure in the women’s rights movement and in the realm of addiction treatment.
Lead image source: (White House photograph A1385-10); 1974