Betty Ford: A Role Model Remembered

Betty Ford, who died recently at the age of 93, was probably more politically active—and certainly more outspoken—than any other first ladies except Abigail Adams and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Mrs. Ford’s candor and dedication to advancing women’s issues was never more obvious than when the White House doctor discovered a lump on her breast during a routine physical examination not long after her husband became president.

Before she entered Bethesda Naval Hospital to have the lump removed and tested for cancer, the first lady stuck with her crowded schedule: dedicating a Lyndon B. Johnson memorial park along the Potomac River, entertaining Lady Bird Johnson at a White House tea, and dropping by a Salvation Army luncheon.

Finally, Mrs. Ford checked into the hospital and underwent surgery to remove the lump on her breast. It was found be cancerous, and doctors immediately performed a mastectomy. Mrs. Ford insisted on releasing this news immediately to reporters and the public.

Such candor by a first lady—or any public figure—was virtually unheard of in those days, more than 35 years ago. Mrs. Ford’s highly-publicized experience persuaded thousands of women to undergo mammograms to detect breast cancer, and thereby saved many lives. The wife of Vice President Nelson Rockefeller decided to have a mammogram as a result of Mrs. Ford’s experience, and discovered that she had breast cancer. 

My mother underwent a mammogram as a result of Mrs. Ford’s diagnosis, and found that she had breast cancer. The first lady phoned her after the operation and wished her well. My mother lived more than 30 years after the surgery.

Despite these positive effects of her openness, Mrs. Ford decided she did not want to make breast cancer awareness the issue she promoted in her role as first lady. The issues she did want to advance were women’s rights, cultural matters and help for developmentally-challenged children.

Those who observed Betty Ford during her husband’s presidency noticed that she sometimes appeared to be drowsy and slurred her words. More than a year after leaving the White House, she checked herself into a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program to cure an addiction to pain-killers, tranquilizers and alcohol. She had turned to these to ease the effects of arthritis and a pinched nerve in her neck, and the stress of raising her four children while her husband—as House Republican leader, vice president, and president—was frequently absent, traveling on official and political business.

Again, Mrs. Ford’s openness helped thousands of others to face and cure the own addictions.

Her candor and lack of pretention made Betty Ford a beloved public figure, sometimes more popular than her husband. During the 1976 election race, Gerald Ford’s campaign distributed buttons reading: “Betty’s Husband For President.” And at the end of that campaign, she literally became her husband’s voice.

Stepping up to the microphone in the White House press room to concede the election to Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford was so overcome by disappointment and so hoarse from campaigning that Mrs. Ford had to read his concession speech to the cameras for him.

The news media loved Betty Ford for her frequent colorful quotes. Some of these quotes made her husband’s conservative supporters cringe, for instance when she called the Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing abortion “a great, great decision.” Some conservatives also reacted negatively to her advocacy of the Equal Rights Amendment for women.  

When Morley Safer asked the first lady on the CBS program “60 Minutes” what she would do if her teenage daughter Susan told her, “Mother I’m having an affair,” Mrs. Ford made headlines when she replied, “Well, I wouldn’t be surprised. I think she’s a perfectly normal human being like all young girls.”

Mrs. Ford made more headlines when an interviewer from McCall’s magazine asked her how often she slept with her husband and the first lady replied, “I sleep with him as often as I can.”

In fact, Gerald and Betty Ford were one of the few White House couples who shared a bedroom.

Mrs. Ford did not tolerate women becoming overly-friendly with her husband. Once when an attractive singer named Vicki Carr was the entertainer at a White House State Dinner, she flirted with the president and he flirted back. At the end of the evening, Betty Ford snapped, “That woman will never get into the White House again!” 

Going all the way back to her days as a dancer with the Martha Graham troupe and as a fashion model before World War II, Betty Ford was role model for women breaking out of their traditional confines.

More personally, she was a wonderfully warm, friendly, funny human being.  She will be greatly missed.