As a Republican first lady who crusaded for women’s rights, publicly battled breast cancer and alcoholism when both subjects were taboo, and became a leading advocate for treatment of drug addiction, Betty Ford was both a controversial pioneer—and one of the most respected and beloved women in America.
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The wife of President Gerald Ford was first lady for less than three years, from 1974 to 1977, but in that time she helped shape the role of the president’s spouse, cementing the expectation that first ladies would be more than just extensions of their husbands. Indeed, The New York Times later wrote, "Mrs. Ford's impact on American culture may be far wider and more lasting than that of her husband, who served a mere 896 days, much of it spent trying to restore the dignity of the office of the president."
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Soon after her husband was inaugurated, the new first lady held her first press conference, facing 75 reporters, and immediately addressed controversial issues such as legalized abortion rights and the Equal Rights Amendment.
Shortly afterwards, Ford became one of the nation’s first advocates for breast cancer awareness. Weeks after she became first lady, she underwent a mastectomy for breast cancer, and shared the details of her struggles with the disease in numerous interviews. Her candor raised the visibility of an issue which until then had been rarely discussed so openly.
"When other women have this same operation, it doesn't make any headlines," she told Time magazine. "But the fact that I was the wife of the president put it in headlines and brought before the public this particular experience I was going through. It made a lot of women realize that it could happen to them. I'm sure I've saved at least one person—maybe more."
Ford, who died Friday at the age of 93, went on to make openness, candor, and a push for women’s rights signatures of her tenure as first lady.
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In 1975, Ford addressed the International Women’s Year meeting in Cleveland, Ohio. In what was called “the most progressive [speech] made by any president’s wife since Eleanor Roosevelt,” she encouraged all women to work for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. “Being a lady does not require silence,” she said.
In a 1975 interview on “60 Minutes,” she said that had she been young in the 1970s she might have tried marijuana; she called the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision upholding a woman’s abortion rights a “great, great decision”; and she said she wouldn’t be surprised if her 18-year-old daughter had pre-marital sex. The initial response from viewers was two to one in criticism of her remarks, but within months her approval rating climbed to 75 percent and she was applauded for her honesty and candor.
Her most enduring legacy was, and will remain, her public admission of alcoholism—and the clinic that bears her name.
In 1978, Ford’s friends and family confronted her about her addiction to alcohol and painkillers, and she eventually checked in to Long Beach Naval Hospital for treatment. Later that year, she published an autobiography, Times of My Life, recounting her years as first lady and concluding with a chapter on her addiction, her admittance to Long Beach, and the start of her recovery.
Before Ford's admission, the subject of alcoholism and substance abuse was so taboo it was almost never discussed -- especially among married women in America. Ford’s brave disclosure gave men and women suffering from addiction a sense they weren't alone.
In 1982, she went on to found the Betty Ford Center for substance abuse and addiction in Rancho Mirage, Calif. She tirelessly campaigned to raise funds for, and awareness of, drug addiction and treatment.
In 1991, Ford was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George H.W. Bush for her contribution to health issues, with a citation reading, “Her courage and candor have inspired millions of Americans to restore their health, protect their dignity, and shape full lives for themselves.”
Ford’s ability to influence and advocate so effectively – and to overcome the controversy generated by some of her candor -- stemmed from the nation’s introduction to her as an appealing and relatable first lady. While she infused the role of first lady with passionate advocacy, she also embraced her traditional duties with the same enthusiastic energy. She brought a sense of warmth and fun to the White House, where she and her husband hosted numerous state dinners. In 1975, she accompanied the president in journeys to 14 countries, from China to the Vatican.
In 1976, she campaigned for her husband in the presidential election. Although Gerald Ford lost, his wife’s popularity was clearly evident in the buttons worn by many of his supporters: “Betty’s Husband For President!”