Betty Ford - The Outspoken Crusader

December 19, 2016

Betty Ford was known as one of the most candid, outspoken First Ladies in history, often said to have had a more lasting effect on American culture than her husband. Her openness changed the way Americans thought—and spoke—about some health issues previously thought of as private. She and her husband worked to restore American's faith in the office of the President after the Watergate scandal.

Born Elizabeth Anne Bloomer, she studied dance, worked as a model and taught dance to children in Grand Rapids, Mich., while she was still in her teens. After her father’s sudden death, she studied dance under Martha Graham and worked as a model in New York to finance her studies. To please her mother, she returned to Grand Rapids, where she taught dance and worked at a department store. She married a childhood friend, William C. Warren, in 1942. They moved several times with his insurance job, finally returning to Grand Rapids, where she became fashion coordinator at a department store. She put on hold her plan to divorce her alcoholic husband when he fell into a coma. She nursed him back to health before going through with the divorce.

She married lawyer Gerald Ford in 1948, just before he was elected to the first of 13 terms in Congress. As a political wife and mother of four, she was unusually frank, often speaking out in opposition to the Repulican Party line. Because she had worked to help support her family after her father's death and again when her first husband had a stroke, she was a very outspoken supporter of the women’s rights movement and the need for equal pay for women.

Until she announced that she had breast cancer, the disease was never discussed in public. Making a stand against the secrecy that preceded the Watergate scandal, Betty Ford was determined to be an open book to the American people. Public health gurus often credit her with saving thousands of lives with her candor. After she went public about her mastectomy, there was such a marked increase in cases of breast cancer discovered through self-examination that it is called the "Betty Ford blip."

She was a tireless supporter of the arts as First Lady, was instrumental in Martha Graham’s receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom and herself received an award from Parsons New School of Design.

After leaving the White House, she was the first respected public figure to openly discuss addiction and treatment. After her treatment for alcoholism and addiction to prescription pain medication, she founded the Betty Ford Center in California in 1982 and served as its chairman until 2005.

She continued to be active in women’s causes throughout her life.  President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the second National Commission on the International Women’s Year in 1977 and joined other First Ladies in the National Women’s Conference. She led rallies for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1991, a Congressional Gold Medal in 1999 and the Woodrow Wilson Award for public service from the Smithsonian. She died in 2011, at age 93, and was buried next to her husband at the Gerald Ford Museum in Grand Rapids.