A power which could be used to help
Many American First Ladies have left their mark on history and society. Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Kennedy and Nancy Reagan were among some of the highest-profile First Ladies of their time and those with some of the most lasting legacies. It was another 20th-century First Lady, the Chicago-born Betty Ford, who not only made her mark during her time in the White House but who continues to have an effect on the lives of many Americans to this day.
The First Lady whom Americans would come to know as Betty Ford was born Elizabeth Anne Bloomer on April 8, 1918. Her mother Hortense and father William were living in Chicago at the time, where William was a traveling salesman for a rubber company. The family, which also included Betty’s brothers Robert and William, Jr., would move around the middle part of the country frequently before settling in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Betty Bloomer eschewed the traditional roles for young women of the times very early in life – and she never looked back. As a teenager during the Great Depression she was determined to go to work and pull her weight to help her family through the difficult years. She also showed what would become her lifelong characteristic of compassion when she found work in a local home for disabled children.
She had a love and talent for dance, studying from a young age and opening her own dance studio for children before she graduated high school. Her life was shaped by tragedy when her father died of carbon monoxide poisoning while working in the family’s garage. Hortense went to work to support the family as the sole breadwinner, a strong-woman role model whom Betty would successfully seek to emulate for the rest of her life.
Betty’s dance career accelerated after she graduated high school. She was accepted to the Bennington School of Dance in Vermont and found work as a fashion model in a local department store to pay the bills. In 1940 she performed with her dance troupe at New York’s legendary Carnegie Hall. But that would prove to be her peak as a dancer, and a year later she returned to Grand Rapids to work in the department store and continue to teach dance.
She married William C. Warren in 1942, but the marriage was a rocky one. When her husband was diagnosed with acute diabetes, Betty shouldered the burden of supporting the couple. They divorced shortly after he recovered in 1947.
Not long after that, Betty met an up-and-coming former college football star and lawyer named Gerald R. Ford. Politicians’ spouses are known to make sacrifices, but in Betty Ford’s case it was taken to an early extreme. Married just two weeks before election day in her husband’s first race for Congress, she watched as the groom departed their rehearsal dinner early to deliver a speech, and then arrived late for the wedding the next day when a campaign rally ran long. Their honeymoon consisted of attending a University of Michigan football game, a campaign rally and a speech by Presidential candidate Thomas Dewey.
Thus was Betty Ford’s introduction to politics.
Just as in all other aspects of her life, Betty Ford was not one to just sit back and watch what was going on around her. The couple moved to the Washington area when Congressman Ford took office in 1949. Betty was a top, if unofficial, adviser to her congressman husband; getting acquainted with the key players on Capitol Hill and their families, while raising the couple’s four children. She was also active in local charities and civic clubs for the 25 years in which Gerald Ford served in the U.S. House of Representatives, where eventually became the House Minority Leader.
Things changed dramatically for the Fords in 1973. Vice President Spiro Agnew became embroiled in an ethics scandal and was forced to step down. Snared in his own scandal related to the Watergate break-in, President Richard Nixon needed someone reliable and trustworthy enough to win Congressional confirmation as the nation’s new Vice President. He selected Ford, who became Vice President in October 1973. It was to be a short tenure, as Nixon sank deeper into Watergate and resigned the Presidency just ten months later.
Gerald Ford became the 38th President of the United States on August 9, 1974, and Betty Ford became the nation’s First Lady.
The nation quickly learned that Betty Ford wasn’t about to change her style just because she had moved to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And by and large, the people approved.
She joined the CB radio craze, using “First Mama” as her radio call sign. She danced along with the crowd at White House functions, including to the disco music that was sweeping the nation in the mid-1970s. And she didn’t hold back her opinions on the social issues of the day, including drug use and women’s rights. During the nation’s bicentennial celebrations in 1976 she spoke at the opening of an exhibit about Revolutionary War women, saying, “this exhibit about neglected Americans should give us strength and courage to seek equal rights for women today.”
Her approval rating early in her time as First Lady hit 75 percent.
But the issue that would galvanize the nation’s attention on the First Lady during her years in the White House came as a devastating shock to her. And true to her style, she was open and honest with the people, even though it was not the way things were traditionally done at the time.
A short time after she moved into the White House, a routine examination turned up evidence of breast cancer. Further inspection found it to be malignant, and the First Lady underwent a mastectomy. Betty Ford went public with her diagnosis, the procedure and her recovery, raising eyebrows by touching a taboo subject that was simply not discussed in public at the time. But by doing so, she removed the stigma from the disease and encouraged others to come forward and get exams and treatment, potentially saving an untold number of lives.
Time magazine named her Woman of the Year in 1975, calling her the “Fighting First Lady.”
“It made a lot of women realize it could happen to them,” she told Time of her diagnosis. “I’m sure I’ve saved at least one person – maybe more.”
She recognized the good that came with her platform as First Lady, far beyond its ceremonial role. “Not my power, but the power of the position, a power which could be used to help,” she described it.
While her husband’s approval rating fell due to his pardon of Nixon and the nation’s ongoing economic slump, Betty Ford remained popular. As the 1976 campaign drew near, she hit the campaign trail and spoke in ads for the Ford campaign. She was so popular that buttons were printed up which read, “Vote for Betty’s husband.”
Though he lost nationally, Betty’s husband pulled out a narrow win in Illinois.
On election night, after falling just short against Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, President Ford’s voice gave out, and he stood by as the First Lady read his concession speech.
Having left the White House, Betty Ford became no less outspoken. Once again she would find her voice in response to a great personal challenge. Long before becoming First Lady, Betty Ford had battled what today might be called opioid addiction. She had been prescribed the painkiller diazepam for a pinched nerve in the 1960s and had never really been able to fully escape it. In the late 1970s, she battled alcoholism as well. She entered detoxification at a naval clinic near the retired First Family’s new home in southern California. Once again, she shared the details of her struggle with the American people, giving countless others the courage to speak up and seek help.
Finally recovered, she saw the need for a clinic that could bring the kind of treatment which she received to all those women who needed it. In 1982, the Betty Ford Center opened in Rancho Mirage, California, to provide treatment and counseling for patients battling substance abuse. In the nearly 40 years since, the Betty Ford Center has become one of the most prominent and respected institutions for recovery in America.
Her successor Barbara Bush said of Ford, “Because she suffered, there will be more healing. Because of her grief, there will be more joy.” President George Bush awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1991.
Not content just to open a clinic, Betty Ford remained for the rest of her life an advocate for improved treatment of those battling substance abuse. In 1994 she joined with her successor as First Lady, Rosalynn Carter, to lobby Congress for better treatment options, and in 1997 the Betty Ford Center established a Children’s Program to help with abuse prevention efforts.
In the decades after, the Betty Ford Center continued to innovate and remain on the cutting edge of research into addiction treatment, offering its services to thousands in need of help. In 2019 the center partnered with the Mayo Clinic for a groundbreaking study “to identify biological markers that would predict a patient’s response to a medication used in treatment of alcohol use disorder.”
The Betty Ford Center expanded its operations to offer its services throughout the country, including at one campus in her home town of Chicago.
Sadly, while the progress her namesake continues to make in addiction treatment and recovery continued, Betty Ford did not live to see it. She died on July 8, 2011, at the age of 93. She is buried with her husband just outside the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan.