Make a quick mental list of first ladies who made a difference in the social development of the country, and the names are obvious: Eleanor Roosevelt. Hillary Rodham Clinton. And Michelle Obama, whose impressive credentials as a Harvard Law School graduate are a footnote to her work against childhood obesity. Less often mentioned, but highly worthy of praise in the recent history of women’s advancement, is Betty Ford.
Perhaps it’s because Ford’s husband, the late former President Gerald Ford, seemed like a place-holder in a painful time in American history. The genial Ford was the perfect personality to occupy the Oval Office after the trauma of Watergate and the resignation of Richard Nixon. Serving just two and a half years in office, Ford personified the national breather so desperately needed at that time. Since he had not been elected either president or vice president (named by Nixon to fill the void left by former vice president Spiro Agnew, who had resigned as well), Ford didn’t come into the presidency with a mission statement, or a national mandate for a defined vision for the country. And Betty Ford, with little time to find a “cause” the American public expects first ladies to take on, had even less of an opportunity to define her White House legacy.
And yet Ford, who died Friday at age 93, advanced the role of women just by being herself. A former dancer who ended up becoming what was then known as a political wife--and her husband didn’t even tell her in advance before he announced he was running for Congress--Ford’s frankness, courage, and compassion helped establish a newer, more assertive role for women. She was in favor of abortion rights--not seen by all women as a defining woman’s right--but her boldness in revealing the controversial opinion was remarkable, especially so soon after the 1973 Roe v Wade decision. She was in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment.
Asked how she would feel if her daughter had premarital sex, Ford refrained from falling into a hyper-protective mother mode, musing that her daughter was a normal young woman who might indeed have an intimate relationship with a man before marriage.
Ford had breast cancer, and went very public about her mastectomy and recovery, giving hope and support to women fighting a disease many people back then still didn’t like to say the word “cancer” out loud. She struggled with addiction, and not only discussed her troubles, but founded the Betty Ford Clinic to help others with similar problems.
Betty Ford may not have engineered it, but she was a feminist icon. And she accomplished it just by being herself.