I learned today of the passing of former First Lady, Betty Ford. Sometimes it’s not until death that someone’s contributions are apparent. To me, Betty Ford was synonymous with the rehab treatment center that bore her name. I didn’t realize all the other ways in which she was influential.
As a young woman, Ford, born Elizabeth Ann Bloomer, worked as a model, dance teacher, and fashion coordinator at a department store. The style and grace that landed her those positions was evident throughout her entire life in photos and interviews I’ve seen. But beyond the polished exterior, was an honest, genuine, and open woman.
She divorced her abusive, alcoholic first husband after five years’ of marriage. That step alone was a brave action—expecially for the mid-20th century. She married Gerald Ford, shortly after he entered his first term as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
She entered the White House as First Lady in 1974, as a stay-at-home mother of four children, but she quickly shattered perceptions of what a stay-at-home mom should be.
Shortly after becoming First Lady, Ford announced to the world that she was battling breast cancer. Her announcement was a huge win for women’s health. It seems strange today, with all our pink ribbon campaigns and events, but in the early 70s, breast cancer wasn’t talked about publicly. As a result of Ford’s candor, many more women began getting mammograms, funding for breast cancer research gained momentum, and the disease lost its taboo.
Betty Ford was also a feminist and supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment. She was an activist in the women’s rights movement, and spoke out on controversial topics—from equal pay to abortion. She didn’t let her husband’s high-profile job silence her.
At a time when substance abuse carried a stigma, Ford shared her own struggles with alcohol and prescription painkillers. In doing so, she affected millions of people and helped change the way we view addiction.
Although she never ran for office, she had a high approval rating and lobbied for the Supreme Court to have a woman on it. When her husband lost the presidential election in 1976, she gave his concession speech. They were very much equals and partners. Gerald ford once said, “I am indebted to no man and to only one woman, my dear wife.”
From humble beginnings, to a position of national power and influence, Betty Ford never lost her sense of who she was. She wanted to make the world better, and she did. Throughout her life, Betty Ford was active in women’s rights and continued a public life with speaking engagements and as an advocate for the arts. Although she had struggles (addiction, cancer), she lived the life she wanted, spoke her mind, and contributed to social change. She was married to the love of her life for 58 years. She was 93. Her’s is a life worth celebrating.
As a woman who started with humble beginnings and rose to become such a high-profile figure, I think Betty Ford fits this month’s Feminist Fashion Bloggers‘ theme: Fashion, Feminism, and Social Class. Have a look at what the others are writing about.
NBC Evening News, July 9, 2011
ABC News Online “Former First Lady Betty Ford Dead at 93” by Christiane Amanpour