Betty Ford Danced To Her Own Beat

We’re wrapping up Women’s History Month. Today’s post comes from Anayeli Nunez at the National Archives History Office.

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Betty Bloomer (second from right), likely at Bennington College Summer School of Dance, 1938. (National Archives Identifier 187011)

In 1987, Congress declared March National Women’s History MonthToday we use this month to honor women, from the suffragists of the 19th Amendment to today’s proud supporters of the #MeToo movement. 

It’s also a fitting time to look at the life of First Lady Betty Ford, a strong advocate for women’s rights whose 100-year birthday anniversary is April 8, 2018.

Before becoming the First Lady, Betty Ford was Elizabeth Anne Bloomer, a young woman from Chicago with a passion for dancing. Her love for the performing arts took her all the way to Carnegie Hall in New York City.

In 1948 she married Gerald Ford, and just months after their wedding, in January 1949, Ford was elected to Congress as a member of the House of Representatives for Michigan’s Fifth District.

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Representative Gerald R. Ford with his wife, Betty, and their children, Michael “Mike,” John “Jack,” Steven “Steve,” and Susan in the living room of their home in Alexandria, Virginia, 1959. (National Archives Identifier 186844)

Gerald Ford served in the House until 1973, when Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned and President Richard Nixon chose Ford as the next Vice President.

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Betty Ford, 1962. (National Archives Identifier 186991)

When Nixon resigned from the Presidency in August 1974, the Ford family moved into the White House.

During her time as First Lady, Mrs. Ford became known as an advocate for issues including reproductive health, mental health, addiction, and the Women’s Rights Movement.

In September 1974, Mrs. Ford announced at a press conference that she supported the Equal Rights Amendment and that she also supported the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize abortion, both of which were considered controversial topics at the time.

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First Lady Betty Ford sports a button expressing her support for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, Hollywood, Florida, February 26, 1975. (Gerald R. Ford Library, National Archives)

In fact, her support for equal rights was so strong that at her urging, President Ford declared 1975 to be International Women’s Year, alongside the UN’s resolution, and established a commission through Executive Order 11832.

Press Release for Executive Order Establishing a Commission on International Women’s Year, January 9, 1975. (Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library, National Archives)

However, despite her great work at the national level, personally Mrs. Ford endured difficulties, namely in the form of breast cancer and alcoholism. Yet, the manner in which she overcame both and then used them to raise attention for those causes speaks volumes about her commitment to the advancement of women and their health.

After a mastectomy in 1974, Mrs. Ford opened up about her breast cancer, raising awareness for the disease and leading to an increase reported cases and therefore an increase in women treated.

President and Mrs. Ford return to the President’s suite at the Bethesda Naval Hospital, Bethesda, MD, following the First Lady’s breast cancer surgery. October 4, 1974. (Gerald R. Ford Library, National Archives)

A year after President Ford’s term was over, Betty Ford came forward with her alcoholism and drug addition. After undergoing treatment herself, she opened up the Betty Ford Center in 1982, a medical clinic for treating people with alcohol and chemical dependencies. This center, which brought light to an issue faced by many women—the lack of facilities devoted to this particular medical problem—keeps half of its space open for women at all times.

Her achievements greatly influenced an era of women, and in 1991 President George H.W. Bush presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the highest civilian honor in the country, awarded for significant contributions to the nation. She was honored for using her unique position to turn her personal misfortunes into causes that helped women.

Former First Lady Betty Ford receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from First Lady Barbara Bush and President George H.W. Bush, November 18, 1991, (George H.W. Bush Library, National Archives)

Betty Ford passed away in June 2011 at the age of 93. In a tribute, Mark Updegrove, Director of the LBJ Library, who wrote much about the Ford family, said:

Betty Ford was a thoroughly modern first lady—and among the most progressive we’ve ever had in the White House. During her brief turn as first lady in the height of the “Swinging Seventies,” Mrs. Ford was an outspoken supporter of an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, and of Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial 1973 ruling on abortion.

Luci Baines Johnson, President Johnson’s daughter, remembered Betty Ford as welcoming and gracious. In an afternoon with the Ford family after President Johnson’s death, she recalled:

I’ll never forget Mrs. Ford’s hug when I walked through the door. Her first words to me were “Welcome home!” She asked if I would like to see my old room and made sure I got to see some of the White House staff I had known and loved.

Mrs. Ford didn’t want anyone to feel like they were an outsider—not a former first family, not a breast cancer patient, not an alcoholic, not a person suffering any addiction.

Betty Ford made a difference with her adamant pursue for women’s rights and equal opportunities—Happy 100th Birthday, Betty Ford!

For more information on Women’s History Month at the National Archives visit our Women’s History website. And for more information about the Betty Ford 100 visit the Presidential Libraries page

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