Betty Ford was the wife and First Lady of President Gerald Ford. But to Betty, being the First Lady wasn’t just a title, it was a role that she would fulfill before, during, and after President Ford’s term in office. Through being the First Lady, she would prove to be the perfect politician’s wife, mother, and role model of the 1970s. Betty Ford was truly a woman who turned her own personal tragedies into triumphs in which she would speak openly about with the entire country as a form of teaching others and showing others that no one was perfect.
Betty Ford was Born Elizabeth Ann Bloomer on April 8, 1918 in Chicago, Illinois. Her parents were William Stephenson Bloomer and Hortense Neahr Bloomer. Growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, she was a tomboy who looked up to her two older brothers (First Lady Biography). When she was 8 year old, she discovered her passion as a dancer and took lessons near her home. At age 16, Betty’s father died from carbon monoxide poisoning while working in their garage. In 1933, Betty graduated high school and wanted to study dance in New York, but to her dismay, her mother refused. She studied dance in Vermont under Martha Graham for two summers. She then moved to New York City and worked as a model in order to pay for more dance lessons. Her mother opposed her lifestyle and made a compromise with Betty. She would come back home to Grand Rapids and if things didn’t work out for her within 6 months, she could go back to New York (Wikipedia).
Back in Michigan she taught dance and worked in a department store and on an assembly line. Within a few years of returning home, she met her first husband, Bill Warren. The two were married in the spring of 1942, but due to personal problems, they separated in September of 1947 with no children. Soon after divorcing Bill, Betty met Gerald Ford. He was a young, attractive veteran and a former flyer. Betty and Gerald fell in love and married in the fall of 1948. At the same time, Gerald was running for a seat in the US Congress (First Lady Biography).
In the 1950s, the Fords had three sons and a daughter. Now more than ever Betty took up her role as a mother and wife to Gerald and their four children when they moved to Alexandria, Virginia. She was happy to do so (Elizabeth “Betty Ford). But even as a wife and mother, Betty was described to be the perfect politician’s wife. She was bright, bubbly, and polite. She was the perfect asset to Gerald’s career (First Lady Biography). During this time she became friends with Bess Truman and even attended the inauguration of John Kennedy. 1964 also sparked a downward spiral for Betty. Due to a pinched nerve in her neck and arthritis, she was put on painkillers. The painkillers led to alcohol, which also helped ease the pain. It was evident that Betty was spending more time alone now. Even though she had these problems, she put on a good front for the sake of her family, especially her husband and his career (First Lady Biography).
In 1972, Gerald’s career began to progress rapidly. In the spring of that year, the Nixon’s invited the Ford’s to go to China with them. Soon after, Richard Nixon chose Gerald to be his Vice President from 1973 to 1974 after Agnew resigned. In 1974, Nixon himself resigned over the Watergate scandal and Gerald was sworn into office as President of the United States. As soon Gerald became President, Betty discovered a large lump in her right breast; she had breast cancer. (First Lady Biography). At the time, breast cancer or even cancer itself was not a public topic to be discussed. However, Betty took the initiative to speak openly about the issue, especially after her mastectomy. She spoke to women around the country about how important mammograms and self breast-examinations world. She gained the respect of million and no doubt saved thousands of lives by being a role model (TIME).
During Gerald time in office between 1974-1977, Betty did much more than just speak about her breast cancer. She openly supported and lobbied for the Equal Rights Amendment which would give men and women the same rights by law (World Book). Betty served a social and domestic advisor to Gerald. She proofread his papers, went over his speeches with him, and discussed issues. Betty spoke to Gerald about promoting women to higher up government positions such as the Supreme Court. She desired better opportunities for women. It was common for their opinions to clash, and often Gerald’s other advisors told him it would be best if he censored her more went she spoke to the public. Luckily for Betty, Gerald refused to do so, saying that Betty had every right to her opinion. Evidently, she had a 75% approval rating, much higher than that of her husband’s (Elizabeth “Betty” Ford).
A lot of what Betty spoke about was extremely controversial. She openly discussed marijuana, pre-marital sex, gun laws, and abortion. She once stated upon the legalizing abortion that it was “a great, great decision.” Due to her pro-choice views, she easily won over the hearts of American women and liberals. Because she was pro-choice, she often stated that she supported all women and their decisions to either go to work or stay home with their children, both of which she had done herself (Elizabeth “Betty” Ford).
In 1976, Gerald lost the presidential race against Jimmy Carter. When the news came in, Betty was absolutely shocked. However, she continued to be a strong woman even through the failures. Her and Gerald packed up and retired to California. Things took a turn for the worse for Betty after her White House years. In 1978, her painkiller and alcohol addiction became clear to her worried family, and an intervention was staged. Betty checked in rehabilitation at the Long Beach Naval Hospital (Britannica). Later on, Betty believed that checking into rehab probably saved her life (First Lady Biography). Due to her experiences in rehab, she opened her own rehab clinic in Rancho Mirage, California. The Betty Ford Treatment Center opened in 1982 (World Book). She wanted to help those who had gone through the same issues and problems that she had, especially women.
Today, Betty is a widow. Gerald passed in December of 2006. She still resides in California. In April of 2007, Betty celebrated her 89th birthday while in a hospital recovering from surgery. She is still active with the Betty Ford Treatment Center and other cancer and illness related organizations across the United States (Kantrowitz). In 2005 Betty’s daughter, Susan, took over her mother’s chairmanship post at the treatment so Betty could spend more time in retirement with Gerald.
The legacy that Betty Ford left behind was simply huge. In 1987, she was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame. In 1999, Betty was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal “in recognition of their dedicated public service and outstanding humanitarian contributions to the people of the United States of America” (Wikipedia). Betty was an amazing First Lady. She was able to be the perfect role model by showing the country that she herself wasn’t perfect. She had been addicted to drugs and alcohol, seen a psychiatrist, had breast cancer, and was able to raise 4 children and hold up her husband’s political career. Betty had literally gone where no First Lady had gone before. She defied her husband’s opinions to speak her mind, and for her, it worked. She laughed off criticisms from conservatives and supported change and choice. Even years after leaving the White House, she continued her efforts to help women in America. Betty changed women’s history forever.
1) First Lady Biography: Betty Ford. 2005. The National First Ladies Library. 13 April 2007. http://www.firstladies.org/biographies/firstladies.aspx?biography=39
2) Betty Ford. 2006. Wikipedia. 12 April 2007. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Betty_Ford
3) Betty Ford Biography. 2005. National Archives and Records Administration: The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum. 12April 2007. http://www.fordlibrarymuseum.gov/grf/bbfbiop.asp
4) Elizabeth “Betty” Ford. 2007. University of Virginia. 12April 2007. http://www.millercenter.virginia.edu/Ampres/essays/ford/firstlady?PHPSESSID=342edcdecd82b5ed7c7c514fef24ed34
5) Ford, Betty. 2007. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 12 April 2007 http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9096417>.
6) Betty Ford. 2007. World Book. 13 April 2007. http://www.worldbook.com/features/presidents/html/ford_betty.htm
7) Betty Ford. CBS Interview. 1997. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/01/05/60minutes/main2333527_page3.shtml
8) Kantrowitz, Barbara. ‘First Momma’ in the White House. 29 December 2006. 14 April 2007. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/16397475/site/newsweek/
9) “Betty Ford: Facing Cancer.” TIME Magazine. 07 October 1974. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,943005-1,00.html
10) “A Fighting First Lady”. TIME Magazine. 03 March 1975. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,912914,00.html