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First Lady Biography: Betty Ford
ELIZABETH ANN BETTY* BLOOMER WARREN FORD
8 April 1918
Born in Lake View Hospital, Betty Ford spent the first weeks of her life with her parents and brother in an apartment in the East Rogers Park suburb of Chicago, but the family shortly after relocated to Denver, Colorado. By her second birthday, however, she was living in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the city she always considered her home. The family lived at 717 Fountain Street in the city; however, until 1932, the Bloomers lived for the three months of summer at a family cottage on Whitefish Lake, Michigan.
*Although she later said that she had wished she had been called by her given name of Elizabeth, she was always addressed by the nickname Betty as a child and it became permanent.
William Stephenson Bloomer, born on 19 July, 1874, Roanoke, Illinois [although another source lists it as being in Indiana]; died on 18 July 1934, Grand Rapids, Michigan
William Bloomer was a travelling salesman for a number of factory machine parts, most notably the Royal Rubber Company, which produced conveyor belts. Although there was some speculation that his sudden death may have been suicide, a coroner’s report stated that it was from accidental asphyxiation, poisoned by the scentless carbon monoxide, while he was working on his car in the enclosed garage.
In later years, when she was beginning the process of recovery from alcohol addiction, Betty Ford disclosed that both her father and brother, Bob, had both suffered from the same disease.
Hortense Neahr, born 11 July 1884, Chicago, Illinois; married first to William Bloomer on 7 November 1904, Chicago Illinois; married secondly to Arthur Meigs Goodwin, Chicago banker, in 1940, in Grand Rapids, Michigan; died on 20 November 1948, Hollywood, Florida
Related to wealthy Grand Rapids furniture manufacturing families, socially prominent Hortense Neahr Bloomer worked in the unsalaried position of President of the Crippled Children Association of Grand Rapids. With her, Betty Ford frequently volunteered to work with children whose disabilities confined their limbs to braces. Between the death of her first husband and marriage to her second husband, Hortense Bloomer supported herself and three children by working as a real-estate agent. Betty Ford later reflected that the example of her mother’s independence would prove to be an important influence in shaping her views on equal pay for equal work policy issues.
Birth Order and Siblings:
third of three; two brothers; William Bloomer, Jr. (1911 - ?), Robert Karl Bloomer (1913-?)
No definitive ancestral study seems to have yet been conducted on Betty Ford. Her mother's maiden name of Neahr is one found among early Palatine Germans who settled in the Mohawk Valley, of Montgomery and Fulton Counties in New York State, many of whom later migrated to Michigan and northern Illinois. It could perhaps also be of Holland Dutch origin. Mrs. Ford's father's name of Bloomer and a further family surname, used as his middle name, Stephenson, would indicate an ancestry from England, although the names may have been Anglicized from other countries of origin. At one point, Mrs. Ford sought to discover if her father’s family had a genealogical connection to Amelia Jenks Bloomer, a 19th century suffrage, temperance and abolition advocate who popularized the first pants for women (which were then dubbed “bloomers” after her), but was unable to determine one.
Short in stature, brown hair, blue eyes.
Grand Rapids Public Grammar School, Grand Rapids, Michigan, September 1924-June 1932; Central High School, Grand Rapids, Michigan, September 1932-June 1936. Besides a traditional education in grammar school and high school, Betty Ford pursued the specialized study of dance: Calla Travis Dance Studio, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1926-1935. Under the direction of a local instructor, then-eight year old Betty Ford studied tap dance, ballet and modern movement. Dance became her great passion and one which she intended early on to pursue as a profession. Bennington College School of Dance, Vermont, Bennington, summers of 1937 and 1938. During her course of study, Betty Ford first came to study with the modern dance pioneer Martha Graham, as well as other luminaries in the field, including Charles Weidman and Doris Humphrey.
Life Before Marriage:
Betty Ford worked at a number of jobs before both her first marriage and then her second marriage. To help defray the expense of her dance classes in Grand Rapids, she took her first formal job at the prominent local department store Herpolscheimer’s as a lunchtime model of clothing for teenage and young adult women, earning three dollars an appearance. During some years in high school, she opened her own dance school, renting space to use as a studio where she taught children, adults at Betty Bloomer Dance School, Grand Rapids, approximately 1935-1937, earning fifty cents for each child student. For four consecutive summers, she also taught dance at Camp Byrn Afom, Stone Lake, Michigan, summers 1937, 1938, 1939, 1940. She recalled teaching some of the era’s most popular dance such as the fox trot, waltz, and Big Apple.
In a 1987 interview, Mrs. Ford mentioned not only her mother and Martha Graham as her strongest role models and influences but also Eleanor Roosevelt; the incumbent First Lady belief that she had the right to express opinions independent of the President and her shaping the First Lady role to match her individualism caught young Betty Ford’s attention and she found it to be “healthy.”
After her two summers (1937, 1938) spent studying modern dance at Bennington College and a meeting with Martha Graham during a Grand Rapids performance of her troupe, Betty Ford was given the opportunity to study with the modern impresario at her school in New York. She moved there, sharing apartments with other female students, in first the Greenwich Village and then the Chelsea sections of the city. Martha Graham Auxiliary Dance Company, dancer, New York, New York, 1940-1941. Although she did not tour the country with the main Graham dance company, she made numerous appearances in New York, including at least one at Carnegie Hall. To support herself she worked for the John Roberts Powers Modeling Agency, as a fashion model of furs, hats and dresses in runway shows and department stores, New York, New York, 1939-1941.
At her mother’s urging, Betty Ford returned to Grand Rapids from New York. She found full-time employment at Herpolscheimer’s fashion coordinator and clothing buyer, 1941-1948, in a series of promotions to jobs which required her frequent buyer trips to New York and other cities. Although there were periods during her first marriage when she was away from Grand Rapids, she consistently returned to work at the department store. She also became a part-time instructor at Travis Dance Studio, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1941-1942, where she had first taken lessons. Among the performances she choreographed was a performance staged at a Baptist Church, notable for the controversy created by her dancers’ appearance in scanter costumes. She also brought dance instruction into a Grand Rapids’ African-American community with a regular weekly class there for children. With her mother’s hospital work exposing Betty Ford early on to people living with disabilities, she also took on students who were deaf and blind, instructing a sight-impaired student to do ballroom dancing, and even learning rudimentary sign-language to instruct the hearing-impaired.
During her first marriage to salesman William Warren (1942-1947), she relocated to several cities where his work took him and returned to full employment herself. These included Toledo, Ohio – where she found work as a demonstrator in a local department store, Lasalle & Koch, requiring her to both model and sell clothes and Syracuse, New York – where she worked as a food processor in a frozen-food factory. Upon their return to Grand Rapids, Betty Warren resumed employment at Herposcheimer’s. Following her divorce, she continued to work there until her second marriage took her to Washington, D.C. in early 1949.
As a young girl and young woman, Betty Bloomer was physically healthy, enjoying sports and strenuous exercise, often seeking to participate in competitive sports like ice hockey and football that were dominated by men, resulting in part from the influence of having two older brothers. Before later health problems, she also enjoyed golf, tennis and skiing.
Husband and Marriage:
24 years old, to William Gustavas Warren, insurance and furniture salesman, (born March 1917, Sullivan County, Missouri) on 23 April 1942, Grand Rapids, Michigan; divorced 15 December 1947. Much of the Bloomer-Warren marriage was spent in a variety of cities, occurring during and after World War II. Warren suffered from diabetes and was ineligible for the draft. Just as she was intending to file for divorce from Warren, she received word that he had suffered a coma in Boston, Massachusetts, where he was working at the time. Living there to care for him as he began to recover, the couple would then relocate to his parents’ home in Grand Rapids. For two years, Betty Warren would live in the home of her in-laws in an upstairs room while her semi-invalid husband was cared for on a lower floor. Once he was able to recover and return to full employment, the divorce proceeded, granted to her on the grounds of “extensive repeated cruelty.” In a 1987 interview, Mrs. Ford reflected that the period would prove an instructive one for her as it was her first full recognition of the inequitable salaries between the genders who performed the same work (she had continued to work and support him through his convalescence) and the unfair burdens that could then legally be placed upon a wife supporting her spouse. Warren was also alcoholic, a reality that only later Betty Ford confronted while seeking her own recovery from the disease later in life.
*Betty Ford is the third presidential wife whose first marriage had ended in divorce, following Rachel Donelson Jackson’s 1793 divorce from Lewis Robards, and Florence Kling Harding’s 1886 divorce from Henry DeWolfe.
30 years old to Gerald Rudolph. Ford, Jr., lawyer and congressional candidate (born as Leslie Lynch King, Jr. after his birth father, but renamed after his adoptive father, his mother’s second husband) 14 July 1913, Omaha, Nebraska, died 26 December 2006,* Rancho Mirage, California) on 15, October 1948, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Before her divorce was finalized, in August of 1947, mutual friends introduced Betty Warren Bloomer to Gerald Ford. “Jerry” was a fellow Grand Rapids resident, a young attorney who had served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, and who had achieved fame in college football. Once she was single they began dating. According to Mrs. Ford, he proposed marriage to her that fall (he said he did so in February of 1948) but told her they could not marry until the fall because he had a secret regarding something he “had to do first.” She accepted, only to soon be told by him that, he was planning to run for the Republican nomination for the local seat to the U.S. Congress, and then the general election. Ford had practical concerns that the morally conservative district might not support his marriage to a divorced woman who had a career in modern dance. The wedding was announced in June of that year – after he had won the Republican nomination. They married just two weeks before Election Day in 1948. Ford had to exit the rehearsal dinner early in order to deliver a previously scheduled campaign speech. When he arrived late at the church for the wedding ceremony, right from a campaign rally, Ford was wearing dusty shoes in the color brown, which didn’t match his wedding suit. She wore a simple dress that cost fifty dollars. The honeymoon was spent attending a campaign rally, University of Michigan football game and a speech given by the 1948 Republican presidential candidate Thomas Dewey. On 2 November 1948, Ford was elected to the first of twelve consecutive terms as a U.S. Congressman.
*To date, Gerald Ford lived longer than any U.S. President, dying at the age of 93 years old.
Four children, three sons, one daughter: Michael Gerald Ford (14 March 1950); John (Jack) Gardner Ford (16 March 1952); Steven Meigs Ford: (19 May 1956); Susan Elizabeth Ford [Vance Bales] (6 July 1957)
Life After Marriage:
Betty Ford became both a wife and political spouse practically at the same time, moving to Washington only two months and two weeks after her wedding, so her husband could begin his congressional career. She immediately began a self-education in the political process, attending hearings, learning and remembering the names and positions of powerful legislative figures, even once following the entire process of how a bill becomes a law. She also assumed responsibility as tour guide in the Nation’s Capitol for those of her husband’s constituents who visited the city. She joined The Congressional Club, a social organization of fellow female spouses of current and former House members. It was in that club where she met lifelong friends and fellow future First Ladies Pat Nixon and Lady Bird Johnson. As one who drew great strength from her faith, though she kept it a private aspect of her life, she also became program director of a Congressional Wives Prayer Group.
The Fords lived in Washington, D.C. until 1955 when - after Ford won his fourth consecutive term and felt secure in his position - they built a home on Crown View Drive in Alexandria, Virginia just over the river from Washington. In August of 1974, the house would serve briefly as the official presidential residence in the first two weeks of the Ford Administration, before they were able to transition into the White House. In 1965, the Ford parents and children pooled their savings and some inheritance, to purchase a condominium apartment in Vail, Colorado which they rented out, but used for themselves annually as their winter vacation home: all members of the family enjoyed skiing.
Ambitious to become Speaker of the House, Ford assumed work beyond that of a congressman, travelling extensively throughout the nation to campaign and fundraise for fellow Republicans, whose support he would need to reach his goal. This left him absent from his wife and children for over half of every year he served in Congress. Thus, it fell to Betty Ford to assume most of the traditional responsibilities of a father to the maturing four children; this, in addition to her duties as a mother who took on the unpaid jobs of a Cub Scout den mother, a Sunday school teacher at the family’s Emmanual-on-the-Hill Episcopal Church, a member of the Parent Teacher Association, and as driver to Little League baseball games for her sons and dance class for her daughter.
Although the family had the help of Clara Powell, an African-American housekeeper, Betty Ford had also assumed commitments expected of her as a congressional spouse which were believed to aide her husband’s status among his colleagues, including active membership in the 81st Congress Club, and the National Federation of Republican Women. She often posed for newspaper publicity photographs and worked as a clothing model at charity fashion shows because, as she was advised by a fellow Republican, too few spouses from their party did so and such coverage was dominated by Democrats. Finally, Betty Ford took on a third level of unpaid work, that of a local volunteer for various charitable organizations such as Program Director of the Alexandria Cancer Fund Drive.
The increasing stress which resulted from fulfilling commitments to her family, community and her husband’s career and the hectic schedule it required was exacerbated by her husband’s lengthy absences, especially following his rise to House Minority leader in January of 1965. Several months earlier, in the course of routinely raising a window one day, Betty Ford pinched a nerve on the left side of her neck: it resulted in immediate and severe muscle spasms, periphrastic neuropathy, a numbed left neck, shoulder and arm, and arthritis. Requiring two weeks of hospitalization, it meant that she was unable to join her family on their summer vacation in 1964. It also began a lifelong routine of seeking non-surgical solutions to cope with the problems which would rise unpredictably, often tied to emotional stress and other physical strains. Most fatefully, however, it led her physicians to begin prescribing various types of pain medications such as Valium. A lack of close regulation of how such drugs affected patients was not uncommon at the time in the medical community and like millions of other people who had been similarly prescribed painkillers, Betty Ford developed a dependency on them. Her obligation to so many others, her now-chronic physical pain, and her sublimation of her own talents and interests to those of her husband, culminated a year later when she suffered a severe and seemingly inexplicable collapse into crying in 1965. Having refused to express the lack of fulfillment and appreciation she felt about her life, the emotional break, then often dubbed a “nervous breakdown” led her to seek professional medical help from a physiatrist from approximately August of 1965 to April of 1967 for weekly meetings.
Although her seeking the professional help of a mental health expert proved beneficial, she did not address her growing dependency on prescription pain medication, sometimes numbering up to twenty a day. All of it would be exacerbated by what she viewed at the time as normal alcohol consumption, a routine among the cocktail parties which congressional couples were then expected to frequent. Only later, in 1978, confronted by her family and recognizing the alcoholism of her father, one of her brothers and her first husband, did Betty Ford admit that she had been in denial about her dependency on alcoholic beverages.
Throughout the 1960’s and most of the 1970’s, however, her alcoholism never reached a consistent level of concern to either her or her family. In large part, the ongoing obligations to her children and public appearances factored into her control of the addiction. Following the 1972 election, when his party failed to achieve a majority in the House of Representatives, Ford believed that his dream of becoming House Speaker might likely elude him. Betty Ford began discussing with him the tentative alternative of his retiring from politics and to this he agreed, promising to make his last congressional race two years later, in the 1974 campaign. When the incumbent Republican Vice President Spiro Agnew was forced to resign in October of 1973 due to bribery scandals, however, President Richard Nixon nominated Congressman Ford, who enjoyed bipartisan support from his colleagues.
During Ford’s confirmation hearings for the vice presidency, Betty Ford also felt compelled to be in attendance during his testimony. She was forthright in her revelation to the media about having sought psychiatric care in the context of explaining that Ford had attended two sessions with her doctor – not for himself but as a spouse, as part of her care; it was an issue Ford was questioned about during his testimony. When he was confirmed, and was sworn in as vice-president the next month, Betty Ford became “Second Lady.” The ceremony was held in the U.S. Capitol before a joint session of Congress. Betty Ford held the Bible that her husband placed his hand on to repeat the oath.
Although she was vice president’s wife for only nine months (6 December 1973 – 8 August 1974), Betty Ford assumed a highly visible public profile. It was in a televised interview with Barbara Walters that she first disclosed her support of the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Rose v. Wade which legalized abortion. When the media broke the news that Betty Ford had been divorced from her first husband as if it were a dark revelation, she simply responded that none of the press had previously asked her about it; her response easily and naturally diffused any suggestion that she was seeking to disguise the truth and ultimately won her more admiration from the media.
As far as the growing Watergate scandal and rumors that President Nixon would be forced to resign, thus making Ford president, Betty Ford refused to indulge in any speculation, stating that while she would make any necessary sacrifices to help her husband fulfill his constitutional duties, it would be a trauma for the country to endure such an unprecedented action. She also emphasized her friendship with and admiration for Pat Nixon during the stressful time. Privately, there was some tension with Nixon Administration officials in July of 1974, following the murder of the mother of assassinated civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Betty Ford felt it was vital for the Administration to express its concern directly, a view not shared by the president’s staff. She took it upon herself to schedule her own attendance and appear at Mrs. King Sr.’s funeral as a representative of the Administration. She further stated her support of federally-funded daycare for children, a domestic initiative opposed by the Administration.
In late 1973, she also helped to form the Republican Women’s Federal Forum, along with Barbara Bush, then the wife of the Republican National Committee chairman. The group was intended to gather both political spouses and those women working in all branches of government to exchange ideas on legislation and stay current on party activities and issues.
In her short time as “Second Lady” Betty Ford focused on projects involving support to the disabled and making the arts accessible to those not generally exposed to them. During a visit to Goodwill Industries she engaged with both blind and deaf workers for a period far lengthier than had been scheduled. She became the most visible national proponent of “Art Train,” a travelling railroad of cars with working artisans, like potters and silversmiths, which toured through the southern states and invited school groups as well as adults onboard to witness and be exposed to the process of creative craftsmanship.
Campaign and Inauguration:
With the resignation of Richard Nixon from the presidency, Gerald Ford was sworn in as Chief Executive in the East Room of the White House on 9 August 1974, his wife holding the Bible as he repeated the oath. In his Inaugural Address, Ford became the first president to ever make reference to his wife: “I am indebted to no man and only one woman, my dear wife, Betty, as I begin this very difficult job."
Betty Ford became First Lady under the unique circumstances in presidential history. She was the wife of a Vice President who had not been elected but rather appointed to the position when his incumbent-predecessor resigned, who then inherited the presidency upon the resignation of the incumbent President. Thus she did not endure an initial presidential campaign for her husband’s presidency or vice-presidency, nor a traditional inauguration which followed a presidential election.
In 1976, as the incumbent President, Gerald Ford entered the presidential primary election for the Republican Party nomination as the presidential candidate, his leading opponent being the former California Governor Ronald Reagan. Ford won the nomination at the 19 August 1976 convention, held in Kansas City, Missouri. He then campaigned in the general race against Democratic presidential candidate and former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter. Betty Ford played a highly visible and significant role in the campaign, not only through her appearances and remarks throughout the country during the primary and general elections, but also as a symbol of moderate to liberal Republicanism – in contrast to the emerging moderate to conservative wing of the party. that was used as a campaign issue both in support and opposition to her husband’s candidacy. Although there was no polling data to provide specific voter reaction to her views, it was anecdotally speculated that while she may have alienated conservatives within her husband’s party from voting for him, she drew him support from liberals and moderates in the party, as well as Independents and anti-Carter Democrats. In contrast to the 1953, 1960 and 1964 campaigns which internally built publicity around presidential candidates’ spouses Mamie Eisenhower, Pat Nixon and Lady Bird Johnson, respectively, in the form of buttons, bumper stickers and other forms of media, the appropriation of Betty Ford to promote of her husband’s candidacy was entirely spontaneous and generated outside of the campaign organization; the most popular slogan was “Vote For Betty’s Husband.”
Despite the tremendous strain on her health, Betty Ford avidly assumed an active schedule. During the primary campaign for the Republican nomination, she was often pitted by the press against Nancy Reagan, the spouse of her husband’s leading opponent, the party’s conservative choice and who offered contrasting opinions on social issues like teenage drug experimentation, abortion, and the Equal Rights Amendment. She taped radio ads for Ford which were broadcast in new Hampshire, and went to Iowa before its caucuses, delivering a speech on behalf of the President, who was unable to appear as planned; in the speech, she emphasized that she was his political partner. Leading up to the Republican Convention, First Lady Betty Ford made campaign appearances and speeches in states with more liberal and moderate Republican voters and was purposely kept off the campaign trail in more conservative western and southern states by the Ford for President staff. She also telephoned individual women delegates to ascertain their commitment to Ford. During the general election, many of Betty Ford’s views were either in synch or even more liberal than those of Rosalynn Carter, the Democratic candidate’s spouse. From Labor Day until Election Day, Betty Ford campaigned in western states including Colorado, California, Texas, Utah and northern midwestern states like Wisconsin, Illinois, and her native Michigan, making some nine multi-stop speaking tours. The strenuous effort activated her pinched nerve; nevertheless she did not cancel her previously arranged schedule. When Ford lost to Carter by a slim margin, the First Family gathered for the President’s concession speech the day after the election. Since he had developed laryngitis during the last days of the campaign, it was Betty Ford who delivered his concession remarks, the first and only candidate’s spouse in history to do so.
Just as she had been thrust into the role of a political spouse just two months after her wedding in 1948, Betty Ford was thrust into the role of First Lady with no time for planning any goals or agenda. In fact, within two weeks of her assuming the position she had a state dinner to arrange for the King of Jordan. The press and the public were immediately enamored with Betty Ford and her family; less than a year earlier, they had been living a scenario that essentially mirrored the middle-class existence of most Americans. Their phone number had been listed. Their garage was filled with sports gear and lawn care equipment. They were concerned how they’d put all their children through college as the national economy endured an economic recession. Among the family, this personal side of the new presidency was transmitted primarily by Betty Ford in simple, honest conversation in interviews, speeches and responses in a rare press conference by a First Lady, conducted on 4 September 1974. At that press conference, the new First Lady announced areas of interest that she would foster, such as the performing and fine arts, and disabled children. However, she also reiterated her support of the Equal Rights Amendment and the Supreme Court decision in favor of legal abortion, and her having divorced and having consulted a psychiatrist. These were extremely rare expressions not only of a First Lady’s genuine opinion on controversial domestic issues of her time, but also of personal revelations the likes of which had never before been disclosed by a First Lady. Two dramatic events that occurred within three weeks of the press conference, however, eclipsed any further indepth coverage of the issues Betty Ford raised in her press conference.
On 26 September, 1974, Betty Ford was diagnosed with malignant breast cancer during a routine mammogram at Walter Reed Army Hospital. She and her husband kept it secret until two days later, when the First Lady underwent a mastectomy. In consideration of President Ford’s vow that his Administration would usher in a new post-Watergate era of White House honesty, Betty Ford made the unprecedented decision to be entirely forthcoming about her health condition. It was while hospitalized, as she looked out the window at the heavy international media presence there to report on her that she realized what she called the “power” of the First Lady’s role to create change and influence behavior. Indeed, as the details of her breast cancer were disseminated in the wake of her disclosure, there were widespread reports of tens of thousands of American women seeking to also have mammograms. Although no definitive numbers can be documented, it is a safe assumption that Betty Ford’s decision to openly discuss a health issue had saved the lives of untold individuals, whereas previous generations of women had lived with it in secret shame. Her direct usage of the very words “breast” and “cancer” was something that had rarely been done in the past. By further using her own condition to discuss screening diagnosis, treatment options and the emotional process of surviving a mastectomy, she not only raised public awareness but forever changed the perception of the disease. As an individual who had gone through the process, she further became an example and symbol for those who had also faced or were just then facing breast cancer.
Finally, it was also the first time a First Lady had permitted reports of her own medical condition to be publicly released since Florence Harding had done so in 1922. With her cooperation, a complete account appeared in the 7 October 1974 issue of Newsweek magazine. Some sixty thousand letters came to the First Lady, many with contributions which she donated to the American Cancer Society.
The other incident which occurred shortly after Betty Ford’s press conference that eclipsed it, was President Ford’s granting of a pardon to former President Nixon for his role in the Watergate scandal on 9 September 1974. The precise extent to which Betty Ford was involved is not clear; however, in a 1983 interview she stated unequivocally that her husband had discussed the matter with her and that she concurred with his instinct to grant the pardon as a way of ending any further burden on the country. It “had to be done” she stated. She also strongly supported his decision in public, despite the political cost to her husband for it. As she predicted, over time, it was seen as a wise decision. Betty Ford
According to their son Jack, Betty Ford not only read through the President’s briefing papers on political issues he faced, and reviewed with him those pertaining to social programs or any which affected women. She also quietly worked as a conduit on legislative and other domestic agenda issues, both to and from him to others. Although she refused to ever discuss what issues they may have disagreed on, she did admit to serving as what she called, a “sounding board,” and exercising “pillow talk” on occasion. She also admitted to reviewing his more important speeches, offering advice to make cuts and use livelier language, without the need to always spell out details but rather leave audiences with some eagerness for further clarifications. Publicly, she gave only faint enthusiasm for the public relations effort “Whip Inflation Now,” a public relations action effort by the Administration intended to encourage cost-cutting and budgeting by citizens to counter the economic inflation of 1974-1975. In the White House, Mrs. Ford emphasized that she was reducing both her family and public entertaining food costs by serving less-expensive poultry, substituting soup for the pricier fish course, having smaller portions served. Personally, she stated, she would have her older shoes dyed rather than buy new ones for each event she needed them, and purchased her cosmetics in larger bulk to keep cost down. She also signed a “consumer’s pledge” to buy “only those products and services priced at or below present levels…”
In the context of the traditional hostess role, Betty Ford was also innovative. She employed various types of American crafts as centerpieces, ranging from Steuben glass to Native American reed baskets, antique tablecloths and even candle-holders made from wooden spools used at an historic New England textile mill. After-dinner entertainment was the liveliest and most informal it had been since the FDR Administration, with dancing always following – and the Fords always dancing. The zenith of social events on her watch was the 7 July 1976 state dinner she and the President hosted for England’s Queen Elizabeth, marking the commemoration of the American Bicentennial celebrations.
Her love of the performing art of dance manifested in varying degrees – whether it was her willingness to perform a few steps to music at public events, such as she did at the 1976 Republican convention with entertainer Tony Orlando, or trying out the popular 1970’s disco dance number “The Bump,” with comedienne Marty Allen at a White House dinner-dance. At the White House, she hosted a program by the New York City Ballet perform with stars Edward Villella and Violetta Verdy performing. She served as chair for a New York tribute to Martha Graham fundraiser, drawing the likes of dance legend Rudolph Nureyev who performed a work of Graham’s. On October 14, 1976, she was also pleased to see the first dancer ever to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom: at her urging, it was given to her mentor, Martha Graham.
As First Lady, she was especially attuned to the popular culture of the 70’s – from trying some disco dance steps, to wearing a mood ring, and even using a CB radio, registering her license under the handle of “First Mama.” On 10 January 1976, in a brief cameo appearance on the popular Mary Tyler Moore Show, Betty Ford became the first First Lady to appear in a television sitcom. She refused, however, to join the national craze in seeing the phenomena hit movie, “Jaws,” about a killer shark in the summer of 1975. Despite her public willingness to try or comment on the fads of her time, in private she continued to rely strongly on her faith, reading daily from her Living Bible and hanging a St. Francis poem in her living suite. Her redecorating was largely limited to the Oval Office, which she redid in earth tone colors, then popular. She had a distinctive fashion style, marked by the use of colorful scarves and high-neck Chinese-style collars on her gowns.
While Betty Ford’s tenure was not marked by a specific project with end goals in mind – (such as Jacqueline Kennedy historical restoration of the White House, or Lady Bird Johnson’s Highway Beautification program), the umbrella theme of her years as First Lady was the effort of equal rights for women. It manifested in numerous ways – from opening a National Archives exhibit on the documentary history of women’s work to meeting with the “Ten Outstanding Young Women of America,” to promoting “Remember the Ladies,” an exhibit on American Revolutionary War women and book on the subject (edited by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis).
The first recipient of the National Women’s Party’s Alice Paul Award, named after the legendary suffragist, it was in continuing the effort of women fighting for equal rights from an earlier generation where Betty Ford made her greatest mark. Specifically, it was in her words and deeds to help encourage passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, intended to guarantee that equal rights under any federal, state, or local law could not be denied on account of gender. Her specific action planned involved direct lobbying by telephone calls and correspondence to representatives and senators in those state legislatures that had not yet passed or even voted on the amendment; four more were required in order for it to be ratified. In January of 1975, she began by writing to North Dakota’s William Kretschmar, and called Illinois’s ranking minority Republican leader William Harris – both ardent anti-ERA leaders in their states, imploring them to permit it to be brought up for a vote in their legislatures. When busloads of anti-ERA protestors lobbied the Missouri legislature, she telephoned two wavering representatives to remain steadfast in their support. Just prior to the Georgia, Nevada North Carolina, Montana, Indiana, Oklahoma and Arizona legislatures were to vote on the measure in their states, she called individual members, lobbying them to support passage. She had some success: Illinois voted it out of committee (although it was defeated there), the Missouri legislators stood firm and it passed in North Dakota.
Betty Ford received much praise from the majority of Americans, including Republicans. A month after her lobbying efforts, she had received 3,246 letters supporting her, and 2,119 opposing her. Time Magazine named her a “Woman of the Year.” Yet she also received criticism from the right-wing minority of the Republican Party, including California Congressman Robert K. Dornan and the Stop ERA chairperson, lawyer Phyllis McAlpin Stewart Schlafly, who chose to mount a publicity campaign against the First Lady. She demanded that the White House reveal how much federal money was spent by the First Lady for using the phone to lobby or whether federal workers who attended a slide show in the East Room on the ERA were on paid time (it turned out that a toll-free WATS telephone line had been used by Betty Ford to make her calls and that attendees at the lecture were on their lunchtime break). For the first time in history, a First Lady was picketed outside the gates of the White House for her political views: marchers dressed in black mourning carrying signs, one of which read, “Betty Ford is Trying to Press a Second-Rate Manhood on American Womenhood!”
In response to critics, Betty Ford always emphasized her own priorities as a wife and mother, and that housewives and those who chose not to work were due not only respect for their decisions but equal rights as well. In sum, she also focused on a woman’s right to have free choice in the many decisions which composed their lives. She spoke not only about equal rights for women, but of the desire of many women to play a larger role in society, not only having a career or pursuing further education or a profession – but also balancing that with the traditional duties of marriage and motherhood. In many respects, Betty Ford was perfectly attuned to the times in which she came into public visibility, for she was able to often draw examples from her own life – education, work, motherhood, marriage, divorce, health, that were relevant to opening a dialogue on the complex questions of women’s roles in contemporary society.
While successful in urging her husband’s appointments of Carla Hills as Secretary of Housing and Urban development and Ann Armstrong as U.S. Ambassador to England, she was unable to convince him to chose a woman as a Supreme Court justice nominee or as his own vice presidential running mate in 1976. Encouraging his designation of 1975 as International Women’s Year, her 25 October 1975 address on the celebration and its significance for the push for ERA ratification is among the most significant ever delivered by a First Lady on gender equity. In part, she stated:
“…I believe the best way to celebrate…is to examine the very real problems women face today…many new opportunities are open to women, too many are available only to the lucky few. Many barriers continue to the paths of most women, even on the most basic issue of equal pay for equal work…This year is not the time to cheer the visible few, but to work for the invisible many, whose lives are still restricted by custom and code….the formal and informal restrictions that confine women. Many…spring directly from those emotional ideas about what women can do and should do. These definitions of behavior and ability inhibit men and women alike, but the limits on women have been formalized into law and structured into social custom. For that reason, the first important steps have been to undo the laws that hem women in and lock them out of the mainstream of opportunities…my own support of the Equal Rights Amendment has shown what happens when a definition of proper behavior collides with the right of an individual to personal opinions. I do not believe that being First Lady should prevent me from expressing my views. I spoke out on this important issue, because of my deep personal convictions. Why should my husband's job or yours prevent us from being ourselves? Being ladylike does not require silence. The Equal Rights Amendment…will help knock down those restrictions that have locked women in to old stereotypes of behavior and opportunity. It will help open up more options for women…But changing laws, more job opportunities less financial discrimination and more possibilities for the use of our minds and bodies will only partially change the place of American women…The heart of the battle is within…We have to take that ‘just’ out of ‘just a housewife’…part of the pattern in our society that has undervalued women's talents in all areas. We have come a long way, but we have a long way to go -- part of that distance is within our own mind…[and] altering how women are treated in every area of everyday life….Freedom for women to be what they want to be will help complete the circle of freedom America has been striving for during 200 years…let us work to end the laws and remove the labels that limit the imagination and the options of men and women alike. Success will open hearts and minds to new possibilities for all people. Much has been done, much remains, but we must keep moving on.”
Betty Ford’s commitment to the ERA remained a primary focus of her tenure as First Lady, even after her husband lost the election, to the end. When she received an honorary Doctor of Laws from the University of Michigan on 19 December 1976, she used her last speech as First Lady to continue to make the case for passage of the ERA.
Having worked as a dancer on a public stage, Betty Ford was comfortable being thrust into a public role. She had no hesitation in making public speeches, articulating sensitive and intimate concerns, such as the disfigurement caused by a mastectomy, which she openly discussed before the American Cancer Society in the fall of 1974, or calming a hotel ballroom full of guests in an emergency, as she did when a guest suffered a heart attack at a Jewish fundraiser in 1976.
She also did not fear granting interviews with no previously-arranged questions, whether for print or broadcast. To magazine writer Myra McPherson she quipped that she and the President would sleep together (contrary to recent traditions of presidential couples). Shocked when there were indignant letters in response to her remarks, she simply replied that she supposed people thought a President should be a “eunuch.” In fact, with their open and frequent display of physical affection, Gerald and Betty Ford ushered in a new perception of presidential couples as warm and loving, a departure from the formal public behavior of their predecessors. When she felt that her remarks on the news interview show 60 Minutes about accepting the reality of unmarried couples living together were taken out of context, she referenced her own marriage as an example of her personal belief that the traditional union was preferable – yet that she respected others who did not share that view.
Those views and others expressed on 60 Minutes, addressed numerous issues that, despite reflecting a reality of life for many families at that time, nevertheless startled citizens unaccustomed to First Ladies verbalizing them. The suggestion that she would be accepting of a young adult child having pre-marital sex came in response to a question posing the scenario of her teenage daughter having an “affair.” When asked her view on marijuana use, she thought it was widespread among the nation’s youth and akin to having a first beer in the era of her youth and that were she now a youth she might have tried it. She emphasized the importance of her own psychiatric treatment and how it could help others suffering from depression and other mental and emotional problems. Finally, she also called the Supreme Court decision upholding a woman’s abortion rights a “great, great decision.
Aired on 10 August 1975, the First Lady’s appearance generated enormous public interest and the initial public reaction was indignant outrage in the form of rebuke from conservative commentators, religious leaders and newspaper editorials. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union censured the First Lady, the first time it had done so since Frances Cleveland appeared in low-cut gowns. The first floods of public mail ran in high opposition to Mrs. Ford at a rate of two to one; however, as news of this initial reaction was learned, the White House was overwhelmed with a greater percentage of supportive letters; among them were those who disagreed with some of her views on particular issues but who championed her frankness.
In the aftermath of the 60 Minutes interview, President Ford wanly joked that she had cost him only 20 million votes in the forthcoming presidential election. Although her approval ratings actually shot up to a high of 75 percent, she reflected with concern, "I would give my life to have Jerry have my poll numbers". Although the President never sought to contain his wife’s public commentary, resentment of her independence was prevalent among some of his senior West Wing staff. At times, the First Lady interceded on scheduling decisions made by his chief assistant Robert Hartmann. When another advisor learned that a briefing paper had been routed to the First Lady to help her prepare for a policy-related speech, he had it retracted before it was delivered, because he felt “the less she knew, the better.” The East Wing staff inevitably ran into open conflict with their male counterparts in the West Wing. Nonetheless, Mrs. Ford’s speech schedule became so heavy that for the first time a speechwriter (Kay Pullen) was hired to aid her.
Besides her innovative approach and tackling of thorny issues, Betty Ford also fulfilled her commitment to more traditional charities, particularly to children with special needs. She helped fundraise for the lesser-known Hospital for Sick Children in Washington, with its predominantly African-American patients, No Greater Love, which benefitted the children of Vietnam War MIA and POW (Missing in Action and Prisoners of War). Because it was a disease that struck women and received little to no public attention, Betty Ford also agreed to serve as honorary president of the National Lupus Foundation.
She also joined the President on twelve international trips, including to Romania, Poland, Yugoslavia and China; she did not, however, make any solo trips to foreign countries.
On 24 April 1975, in the aftermath of America’s withdrawal from Vietnam, there was a flood of refugees airlifted from their native country. By mid-May some 20,000 Indochinese refugees were processed into the United States. In the meanwhile, several hundred orphaned children were brought to the United States where adoptive parents awaited them. Betty Ford flew with the President to San Francisco to welcome them, and she even briefly considered adopting one of the children. “On behalf of all American immigrants, as we are all immigrants,” she did become the primary welcoming voice to the Vietnamese refugees, telling them on 20 May 1975 that despite the “great hardship” they had endured, their less-than ideal current situation would be temporary and there was there was before them “a promising future” and “new life.”
Life After the White House
The most dramatic turning point in Betty Ford’s life and perhaps even the cumulative affect of her influence on the public occurred in early April of 1978, a year after she left the White House and at the time of her 60th birthday. Once she had left Washington, D.C. and the daily public obligations and appearances as First Lady ended, the abatement of her reliance on alcohol had dissipated. As her drinking increased, the effect of her prescription pain medication drastically increased. It evidenced itself beyond her family and staff to the world at large with the broadcast of her narration of Peter and the Wolf in the Soviet Union months after she left the White House. Finally, at the arrangement first of her daughter Susan and then with the leadership of her husband, the former President, Betty Ford was directly confronted by her family in a formal “intervention.” It is a process by which those refusing to recognize or acknowledge their narcotic or alcohol addiction are forced to face it by their loved ones, with specific examples of how it was threatening their relationships and physical well-being. After an initially angry resentment for their encounter, Betty Ford remained home for a week under medical care to undergo a monitored detoxification of her system. Then, on 11 April 1978, she registered herself at the Long Beach Naval Hospital’s drug and alcohol rehabilitation program. There the former First Lady found herself not only having to share a room with other women, but perform humble tasks like cleaning restrooms and participate in emotionally revelatory therapy sessions with five other women patients there at the same time. It was an unexpected but necessary process towards her recovery. Rather than seek to obfuscate the true reasons for her hospitalization or to treat it with shame, Betty Ford decided to fully disclose the details of her addictions and treatment. In support of her, the former President also permanently quit drinking.
Realizing that there were no recovery facilities specifically established to help women process the unique problems that were often the roots of their drug and alcohol problems, she discussed the problem with her friend and fellow resident of Rancho Mirage, California (near Palm Springs) , Leonard Firestone. They co-founded just such a center, associated with the Eisenhower Medical Center there. Initially hesitant about accepting the honor of having it named for her, she finally agreed; it strengthened her resolve to be an active part of the recovery process there. The former First Lady worked to fundraise to create the non-profit Betty Ford Center, which was dedicated on 3 October 1982. She served as Chairman of the Board until 2005. Although often identified in the media by the roster of famous people who have sought recovery from chemical dependency there, a primary focus of its programs is an emphasis on strongly supporting women, for whom 50 percent of the space is always reserved. It would also offer programs for the entire family system affected by addiction with support and education in a five-day Family Program. The Children's Program is for children ages 7 to 12 who are not themselves addicted, but are living with chemically dependent family members.
For many years, Betty Ford actively participated in helping individual patients and counseling those for whom she could provide special perspective. Beyond the Betty Ford Center, she became an activist for improving the nation’s attitude and education, and treatment of chemical dependency. Thus, she further helped to engage a national dialogue on the issue. With further honesty, she also disclosed that she was going to have a face-lift in the fall of 1978, thereby preventing supposition that she may have suffered a relapse in addition. In 1993, she affiliated also with the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.
Betty Ford had only just recently begun her recovery when her first book, the autobiographical Times of My Life was published. Her second book, A Glad Awakening, published in February 1987, was a follow-up memoir which candidly chronicled her addictions and recovery process, all of the royalties being donated to the Betty Ford Center. That same year she cooperated with a dramatic adaptation of her life, made as a television movie which was followed by information for viewers on the family intervention process. Her third book, published in 2003, was titled, Healing and Hope: Six Women from the Betty Ford Center Share Their Powerful Journeys of Addiction and Recovery. In 2005, Betty Ford stepped down from her active role as the center’s chairman of the board to chairman emeritus.
Concurrent with the new Betty Ford Center’s first years in the mid-1980’s, the former First Lady began to see an increase in the amount of people struggling with drug addiction who were also diagnosed as carrying the HIV virus. It led her to become one of the first voices within the Republican Party to articulate concern and passion for those with it and the then-inevitable disability of AIDS. Along these lines, she also voiced her support for gay and lesbian rights in the workplace and later, with the former President, in favor of same-gender marriage. “God put us all here for His own purposes; it’s not my business to try and second-guess Him,” she wrote several years earlier. “I think Anita Bryant’s taking action against the gay population was ill-considered. I don’t believe people should lose their jobs because of their sexual preferences…” For her support of those with AIDS, she would be honored with the first Los Angeles AIDS Project Los Angeles’s Commitment to Life Award in 1985.
While she remained loyal to the Republican Party during the 1980’s, Betty Ford also continued to speak out on issues important to her, even if they defied the shift to the right of her party, still voicing her support of abortion rights and the ERA. While on friendly terms with President George H. Bush, she opposed his Administration’s focus on cocaine while decreasing focus on alcoholism, which remained the nation’s primary chemical dependency problem. She also opposed his Administration’s stronger equation between drug addiction and criminal activity because it permitted insurance companies to more easily refuse coverage of recovery treatment.
Although Betty Ford did not testify before Congress as an incumbent First Lady, she did so twice as a former First Lady. She did so first on 25 March 1991, before the
House Aging Subcommittee on Health and Long Term Care, making a case on behalf of federal funding for drug addiction treatment and recovery. Her second such occasion was unique in history, as the only time two First Ladies delivered testimony on the same issue before the same committee; on March 7th and 8th, 1994, she and Rosalynn Carter delivered testimony to advocate that both mental health and substance abuse treatment benefits be covered in then-pending national health care reform plans.
Betty Ford continued her strong support of equal rights for women. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter named her to the National Commission on the Observance of International Women's Year. She joined with two fellow First Ladies, Lady Bird Johnson and Rosalynn Carter, to participate in the 1977 National Women's Conference in Houston, Texas and granted her full support of its “National Plan of Action,” which advocated the continued legalization of abortion, state-funded day care, and equal rights for gays and lesbians. A year later, she headlined a large national march in Pennsylvania, pushing for that state’s legislature to support the Equal Rights Amendment. When the deadline for the ERA’s ratification was extended to 1982, Betty Ford assumed the honorary co-chair of the ERA Countdown Campaign. In October of 1982, she spoke on behalf of the ERA ratification on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, joined at the march and rally there by Lady Bird Johnson. She also maintained her commitment to breast cancer research and education, given the 1983 Susan G. Koman Foundation Award. In recognition of her contributions to this group, the award was later renamed the Betty Ford Award. Further, her commitment to preserving the right to choice on abortion led her to join Pro-Choice America and the WISH List, both of which supported men and women pro-choice Republican candidates for political office.
As much for her accomplishments achieved after she left the White House as for those she accomplished while First Lady, Betty Ford has been recognized by both private institutions and the federal government. President George H. Bush awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1991. President Bill Clinton awarded her the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999. She was also the recipient of the Smithsonian’s 2003 Woodrow Wilson Award.
Although the Fords made their primary residence in the California desert, they spent half of each year, during the months from late spring to early fall, in the Rocky Mountain region, in the town of Beaver Creek, Colorado, near Vail, where they had been going for many years before leaving Washington. With a love of, and experience in gardening learned from her mother, Betty Ford took an interest in the natural landscapes, plants, and wildflowers of the high-altitude alpine climate zone. In recognition of this, as well as her community contributions to the Vail Valley, the world’s highest botanic garden, located in Vail, was dedicated to her in 1988. The professional staff there quickly became the foremost authorities on the conservation natural flora and fauna life of the region. Three years later, she reflected: “As someone who has always loved gardening, it fills me with a great sense of serenity. Just walking along these winding paths, with the abundance of beauty so close to the touch, brings an introspection and sense of calm too often missing in our lives.” Located some 8,250 feet above sea level in Gerald R. Ford Park, the Ford Alpine Gardens grew to include four distinct sections; Mountain Perennial Garden (1989), Mountain Meditation Garden (1991) Alpine Rock Garden (1999), and the Children's Garden (2002.) It also developed education, and research programs, even horticulture therapy classes focused on the restorative powers of connecting with nature. Over 3,000 unique species of plant life are cultivated and studied there. The Betty Ford Alpine Gardens also works closely with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Botanic Gardens Conservation International and the Colorado Natural Heritage Program on habitat conservation and restoration. “I never dreamed it would grow and flourish to such magnitude,” she remarked proudly of them.
Mrs. Ford has refrained from any further public appearances since the state funeral of her late husband, which proceeded from California to Washington, D.C. to his burial place in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the first days of the year 2007. In April 2007, she not only turned 89 years old but also underwent surgery involving leg circulation. Thus, three months later, she was unable to attend the funeral of former First Lady and friend Lady Bird Johnson, instead having her daughter Susan Bales represent her. While Susan Ford Bales assumed the position of chairman of the board of the Betty Ford Center from her mother, the former First Lady remains as chair emeritus of the institution, continuing to live nearby in Rancho Mirage, California, the central figure in a family which now includes great-grandchildren. Reaching her 91st birthday in 2009, Betty Ford became the third longest living First Lady, following Bess Truman who reached the age of 97 in 1982 and Lady Bird Johnson who reached the age of 94 in 2007.
Although Betty Ford did not join other living former Presidents and former First Ladies at the 2009 Inauguration Day ceremonies, she nevertheless took an interest in the new First Lady, and wrote her a warm letter soon after she assumed the position. Her daughter Susan Ford recalled, "Mother said, ‘I don't know if she knows what she has gotten into. She is really going to be busy.' "
8 July 2011
Rancho Mirage, CA
Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library
Grand Rapids, Michigan
* Following a tradition begun at Eleanor Roosevelt's funeral, which incumbent First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and former First Lady Bess Truman attended, the funeral of Betty Ford was attended by former First Ladies Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton and incumbent First Lady Michelle Obama.