Betty Ford; an unconventional First Lady

Plainspoken Betty Ford made no excuses for who she was and what she was about Photo: Associated Press

FORT WORTH, Tx.  July 20, 2011 — Last week the US buried former First Lady and trailblazer Betty Ford.

President Gerald R. Ford served from 1974 to 1977 with Betty by his side. She walked a different path than that of her predecessors yet won the respect and admiration of a nation.

Betty Ford with President Gerald Ford. (courtesy: Associated Press)

The National First Ladies’ Library describes her march to a different drummer this way:

“Among the [Ford] family, this personal side of the new presidency was transmitted primarily by Betty Ford in simple, honest conversation in interviews, speeches and responses in a rare press conference by a First Lady, conducted on 4 September 1974. At that press conference, the new First Lady announced areas of interest that she would foster, such as the performing and fine arts, and disabled children. However, she also reiterated her support of the Equal Rights Amendment and the Supreme Court decision in favor of legal abortion, and her having divorced and having consulted a psychiatrist. These were extremely rare expressions not only of a First Lady’s genuine opinion on controversial domestic issues of her time, but also of personal revelations the likes of which had never before been disclosed by a First Lady.”

Betty Ford wearing ERA button in 1975. (courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

She shocked some by talking openly about pre-marital sex and drugs in reference to her children. Irritated by the personal nature of questions asked about her life with the president she said that she was surprised no one asked how they had sex. When someone did ask Betty’s answer was, “As often as possible.”

It’s not surprising that Time magazine called her the “Fighting First Lady” and named her “Woman of the Year.”

Her candor set her apart from other First Ladies. But she is best known for bringing to light subjects rarely mentioned outside of a doctor’s office. The words “breast cancer” and “substance abuse” became part of the mainstream vocabulary thanks to her. She dealt with both and won, then went on to help others do the same.

Betty was the first president’s wife to speak publicly about her ordeal with breast cancer. She underwent a radical mastectomy a month after her husband’s inauguration. While recovering from her tribulation she realized how her place in the world could help others.

She told Time magazine,

“When other women have this same operation, it doesn’t make any headlines…..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.”


“…maybe if I as First Lady could talk about it candidly and without embarrassment, many other people would be able to as well.”

First Lady Betty Ford throwing a football to President Ford after her mastectomy October 1974 (courtesy Wikimedia)

She faced another threat to her life after being confronted by her family about her addiction to pain killers and alcohol. This experience once again had her thinking about others who faced the same demons, especially women.

The National First Ladies’ Library website describes it this way,

“Realizing that there was no recovery facilities specifically established to help women process the unique problems that were often the roots of their drug and alcohol problems, she discussed the problem with her friend….Leonard Firestone. They co-founded just such a center, associated with the Eisenhower Medical Center….”

The Betty Ford Center  opened in 1982. The First Lady spent time with the patients every time she was at the facility and insisted that treatment be equally available to women. It was the first licensed Addiction Hospital in the world.  Betty served as Chairman of the Board from 1982 until 2005. According to the website.

“At the Center, she was never Mrs. Ford.  She was Betty. One of the principles she embraced was to never give up on an alcoholic or addict.  She not only promoted that principle but lived it.”

First Lady Betty Ford (courtesy fswphoto Photobucket)

Elizabeth Ann “Betty” Bloomer was the youngest of three children born on April 8, 1918 in Chicago, Illinois. Her parents William and Hortense had moved their family to Grand Rapids, Michigan by the time Betty was two.

Betty started dancing lessons as a child and it became her great passion.  She studied with Martha Graham in New York and even performed at Carnegie Hall.

She stayed in New York until 1941.

In 1942 Betty married her first husband William Warren. The marriage lasted until 1947.  After the divorce mutual friends introduced Betty to a young attorney, Gerald Ford. He was a fellow Grand Rapids resident and served in the US Navy during the Second World War.

Shortly afterward he asked her to marry him. He also planned to run for a seat in the US Congress. Because Betty was a divorcee’ and danced in New York he wanted to wait until after he got the nomination to get married because of the stigma associated with divorce and show business at the time. Betty agreed.

He won the nomination that summer and they married on October 15, 1948. Less than two months later she moved from Grand Rapids, Michigan to Washington D.C.

The new Mrs. Ford adapted well to civic life.

First Lady Betty Ford on the cover of People magazine June 16, 1975 (courtesy: julycoaron Photobucket)

The National First Ladies’ Library says that,

“She immediately began a self-education in the political process, attending hearings, learning and remembering the names and positions of powerful legislative figures, even once following the entire process of how a bill becomes a law. She also assumed responsibility as tour guide in the Nation’s Capitol for those of her husband’s constituents who visited the city.”

Betty Ford was an active participant in her husband’s career. She also bore four children: Michael, Jack, Steve and Susan. Betty balanced motherhood, political duties and worked for many charities.

She continued to contribute to a number of charitable organizations and support the Republican Party with her time and efforts until the death of President Gerald Ford in 2006.

Betty died July 8, 2011

Not everyone agrees with the controversial issues she supported. Nevertheless Betty Ford can be credited with helping so many by bringing once taboo conditions out of the closet and into the light. There is so much more to this amazing woman. Read more about her here:

National First Ladies’ Library

Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum

Betty Ford Center


For Claire Hickey, writing is a newly realized passion. Read more of Claire’s work at Feed The Mind, Nourish The Soul in the Communities at The Washington Times, her blog Sustenance For The Mind, and the writing group she belongs to at Greater Fort Worth Writers Group.

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Claire Hickey

Claire has held a Texas Cosmetology License, Certification in Surgical Technology and has decorated cakes professionally. She believes that life is a banquet to be experienced and wants to learn and do as much as possible while she’s here. This Stay @ Home Mom has always loved to write and thanks to the Communities @ The Washington Times has got her chance. Her curiosity and writing lead her to create her column based on “garbage in garbage out” theory to provide interesting and thought provoking pieces that enrich her readers. A proud member and Treasurer for the Greater Fort Worth Writer’s Group she is currently working on her first novel.  


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