Betty Ford, former First Lady, popular and outspoken wife of the late President Gerald R. Ford, a woman who became the nation’s leading advocate for treatment of drug and alcohol addiction, has died at the age of 93 in Palm Springs, California. Ford, according to her biographer, Chris Chase, died at her home Friday night, surrounded by her family.
Elizabeth Ann Bloomer Warren Ford, better known as Betty, was an able partner to her husband, who assumed the presidency on August 9, 1974, when Richard M. Nixon, plagued by the Watergate scandal that had mired his presidency after a burglary of the Democratic National Committee’s Washington, D.C. headquarters, resigned amid scandal.
The accidental First Lady became a candid voice of openness and frankness, which was unprecedented in staid and staged Washington, D.C. Her demeanor was particularly ground-breaking for the wife of a president to speak so frankly about once-taboo subjects, such as sex, gay rights, abortion, marijuana, and even support for equal rights for women. Mrs. Ford called the Supreme Court’s decision on Roe v. Wade, sanctioning abortion rights, a “great, great decision.”
The unvarnished candor of the politically active presidential wife “since Eleanor Roosevelt,” according to Time, was a breath of fresh air for the entire country, sorely needed following the obsessive secrecy of the Nixon presidency.
Arguably, her greatest legacy in fighting alcohol and drug addiction would occur after Gerald Ford was defeated by Jimmy Carter for the presidency in 1976. She would go on to become America’s national leader and advocate on treatment of drug and alcohol addiction. On April 1, 1978, Ford was confronted by her husband and her children about her abuse of alcohol and prescription drugs. She subsequently founded the Betty Ford Center and Clinic in 1982, which led the nation on education and treatment of alcohol and drug addiction.
Mrs. Ford admitted her loneliness, which led to her addictions, while her husband was away campaigning and spending long hours working in politics. She also asserted that women’s conduct was more highly scrutinized than men’s behavior within society, thus women hid their addictions more effectively from their families and friends.
Ford also brought breast cancer out of the closet, a once-whispered women’s disease of great shame. Just six weeks into Ford’s nascent presidency, Betty Ford announced that she had breast cancer and would have surgery at Bethesda Naval Hospital. She and the president invited reporters to her hospital room following surgery, where she was photographed in her house coat.
Betty Ford said she slept with her husband in the White House (Presidents Kennedy and Johnson had made it known they did not sleep with their wives because of the demands of the presidency) and she enjoyed sex with him frequently. She acknowledged the existence of abortion and supported women’s access to medically safe reproductive services, and she also strongly supported the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), all subjects which would be anathema today within the Republican Party.
“I had such belief in my husband. I never doubted he could do it. … But I wasn’t sure what kind of First Lady I would be. There was a great deal of whooping and hollering right at the beginning because I’d said Jerry and I were not going to have separate bedrooms at the White House, and that we were going to take our own bed with us. … Even now, after all those years of married life, I like the idea of sleeping with my husband next to me.”
“I figured, OK, I’ll move to the White House, do the best I can and if they don’t like it, they can kick me out, but they can’t make me somebody I’m not.”
She also wrote, “I feel women ought to have equal rights, equal Social Security, equal opportunities for education, an equal chance to establish credit.”
When Ford lost the election to Jimmy Carter for the presidency in 1977, he had lost his voice and, exhausted, Betty Ford read his concession statement to the public from the White House.
Ford divorced William Warren after five years, before marrying Gerald Ford in 1948, just six weeks before he became a member of Congress. She was the mother of three sons, Michael, John, Steven and Susan, the Ford’s only daughter.
“Elizabeth Anne Ford distinguished herself through her courage and compassion,” President Barack Obama said upon Mrs. Ford’s passing. “As our nation’s First Lady, she was a powerful advocate for women’s health and women’s rights. After leaving the White House, Mrs. Ford helped reduce the social stigma surrounding addiction and inspired thousands to seek much-needed treatment. While her death is a cause for sadness, we know that organizations such as the Betty Ford Center will honor her legacy by giving countless Americans a new lease on life.
“Today, we take comfort in the knowledge that Betty and her husband, former President Gerald Ford, are together once more. Michelle and I send our thoughts and prayers to their children, Michael, John, Steven, and Susan.”
Vice President and Mrs. Biden said in a statement, “Throughout her life, Betty displayed strength, courage and determination that provided hope for millions of Americans seeking a healthier, happier future. Her legacy and work will live on through the millions of lives she has touched and the many more who will continue to look to her for inspiration. Her family will remain in our thoughts and prayers in the coming days.”
See: The BBC's "Betty Ford's life in pictures"
Tanya L. Domi is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, who teaches about human rights in Eurasia and is a Harriman Institute affiliated faculty member. Prior to teaching at Columbia, Domi worked internationally for more than a decade on issues related to democratic transitional development, including political and media development, human rights, gender issues, sex trafficking, and media freedom.
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