Elizabeth Anne "Betty" Ford (née Bloomer; April 8, 1918 – July 8, 2011) was the First Lady of the United States from 1974 to 1977, as the wife of the 38th President of the United States, Gerald Ford. As First Lady, she was active in social policy and created precedents as a politically active presidential wife. Ford also served as the Second Lady of the United States from 1973 to 1974.
Throughout her husband's term in office, she maintained high approval ratings despite opposition from some conservative Republicans who objected to her more moderate and liberal positions on social issues. Ford was noted for raising breast cancer awareness following her 1974 mastectomy. In addition, she was a passionate supporter of, and activist for, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Pro-choice on abortion and a leader in the Women's Movement, she gained fame as one of the most candid first ladies in history, commenting on every hot-button issue of the time, including feminism, equal pay, the Equal Rights Amendment, sex, drugs, abortion, and gun control. She also raised awareness of addiction when in the 1970s, she announced her long-running battle with alcoholism and substance abuse, being the first First Lady to do so.
Following her White House years, she continued to lobby for the ERA and remained active in the feminist movement. She was the founder, and served as the first chair of the board of directors, of the Betty Ford Center for substance abuse and addiction. She was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal (co-presentation with her husband on October 21, 1998) and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (presented 1991 by George H. W. Bush).
|First Lady of the United States|
August 9, 1974 – January 20, 1977
|Preceded by||Pat Nixon|
|Succeeded by||Rosalynn Carter|
|Second Lady of the United States|
December 6, 1973 – August 9, 1974
|Vice President||Gerald Ford|
|Preceded by||Judy Agnew (Oct. 1973)|
|Succeeded by||Happy Rockefeller (Dec. 1974)|
|Chairwoman of the Betty Ford Center|
October 4, 1982 – January 25, 2005
|Preceded by||Position established|
|Succeeded by||Susan Ford|
Elizabeth Anne Bloomer|
April 8, 1918
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
July 8, 2011 (aged 93)|
Rancho Mirage, California, U.S.
|Resting place||Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum|
Ford was born Elizabeth Anne Bloomer in 1918 in Chicago, Illinois, the third child and only daughter of Hortense (née Neahr; 1884 – 1948) and William Stephenson Bloomer, Sr. (1874 – 1934), who was a traveling salesman for Royal Rubber Co. She was called Betty as a child.
Hortense and William married on November 9, 1904 in Chicago. Betty's two older brothers were Robert (d. 1971) and William Jr. After the family lived briefly in Denver, Colorado, she grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she graduated from Central High School.
After the 1929 stock market crash, when Bloomer was aged 11, she began to earn money by modeling clothes and teaching children popular dances, such as the foxtrot, waltz, and big apple. She also entertained and worked with children with disabilities at the Mary Free Bed Home for Crippled Children. She studied dance at the Calla Travis Dance Studio, graduating in 1935.
When Betty Bloomer was age 16, her father died of carbon monoxide poisoning in the family's garage while working under their car, despite the garage doors being open. He died the day before his 60th birthday.
In 1936, after Bloomer graduated from high school, she proposed continuing her study of dance in New York City, but her mother refused. Instead, she attended the Bennington School of Dance in Bennington, Vermont, for two summers, where she studied under director Martha Hill with choreographers Martha Graham and Hanya Holm. After being accepted by Graham as a student, Bloomer moved to New York City to live in its Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood; she worked as a fashion model for the John Robert Powers firm in order to finance her dance studies. She joined Graham's auxiliary troupe and eventually performed with the company at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
Her mother opposed her daughter's choice of a career and insisted that she move home, but Bloomer resisted. They finally came to a compromise: Bloomer had to return home for six months, but if she still wanted to return to New York City at the end of that time, her mother would not protest further. Bloomer became immersed in her life in Grand Rapids and did not return to New York. Her mother remarried, to family friend and neighbor Arthur Meigs Goodwin, and Bloomer lived with them. She got a job as assistant to the fashion coordinator for Herpolsheimer's, a local department store. She also organized her own dance group and taught dance at various sites in Grand Rapids.
In 1942, Elizabeth Bloomer married William G. Warren, who worked for his father in insurance sales, and whom she had known since she was 12. William Warren began selling insurance for another company shortly after their marriage. He later worked for Continental Can Co., and after that for Widdicomb Furniture. The couple moved frequently because of his work. At one point, they lived in Toledo, Ohio, where Elizabeth was employed at the department store Lasalle & Koch as a demonstrator, a job that entailed being a model and saleswoman. She worked a production line for a frozen-food company in Fulton, New York. When they returned to Grand Rapids, she worked again at Herpolsheimer's, this time as "The" Fashion Coordinator. Warren was an alcoholic and in poor health. Just after Betty decided to file for divorce, he went into a coma. She took care of him for another two years as he convalesced, at his family's home. She stayed upstairs while he was nursed downstairs. After he recovered, they were divorced on September 22, 1947.
On October 15, 1948, Elizabeth married Gerald Ford, a lawyer and World War II veteran, at Grace Episcopal Church, in Grand Rapids. Gerald Ford was then campaigning for what would be his first of thirteen terms as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. In the first of adjustments for politics, he asked her to delay the wedding until shortly before the elections because, as The New York Times reported, "Jerry was running for Congress and wasn't sure how voters might feel about his marrying a divorced ex-dancer."
Gerald and Elizabeth Ford had four children together: Michael Gerald Ford (born 1950), John Gardner Ford (nicknamed Jack; born 1952), Steven Meigs Ford (born 1956), and Susan Elizabeth Ford (born 1957). Betty Ford never spanked or hit her children, believing that there were better, more constructive ways to deal with discipline and punishment.
The Fords moved to the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., and lived there for twenty-five years. Gerald Ford rose to become the highest-ranking Republican in the House. After Spiro Agnew resigned as Vice President in 1973, President Richard Nixon appointed Gerald Ford to the position. He succeeded to the presidency in 1974, upon Nixon's resignation in the wake of the Watergate scandal.
The Fords, who were married 58 years until Gerald's death, were among the more openly affectionate First Couples in United States history. Neither was shy about their mutual love and equal respect, and they were known to have a strong personal and political partnership.
Reporters wondered what kind of first lady Ford would be, as they thought her predecessor, Pat Nixon, as noted by one reporter, to be the "most disciplined, composed first lady in history." In the opinion of The New York Times and several presidential historians, "Mrs. Ford's impact on American culture may be far wider and more lasting than that of her husband, who served a mere 896 days, much of it spent trying to restore the dignity of the office of the president."
Steinhauer of The New York Times described Ford as "a product and symbol of the cultural and political times — doing the Bump dance along the corridors of the White House, donning a mood ring, chatting on her CB radio with the handle First Mama — a housewife who argued passionately for equal rights for women, a mother of four who mused about drugs, abortion and premarital sex aloud and without regret." In 1975, in an interview with McCall's, Ford said that she was asked just about everything, except for how often she and the president had sex. "And if they'd asked me that I would have told them," she said, adding that her response would be, "As often as possible."
She was open about the benefits of psychiatric treatment, and spoke understandingly about marijuana use and premarital sex. The new First Lady noted during a televised White House tour that she and the President shared the same bed. Ford was a guest on 60 Minutes and, in a characteristically candid interview, she discussed how she would counsel her daughter if she was having an affair. She said she "would not be surprised" by that, and also acknowledged that her children may have experimented with marijuana, which was popular among the young. Some conservatives called her "No Lady" for her comments and demanded her "resignation", but her overall approval rating was at a high seventy-five percent. As she later said, during her husband's failed 1976 presidential campaign, "I would give my life to have Jerry have my poll numbers."
Her outspoken comments also caused President Ford's advisors dismay due to their attempts at restoring America's composure in the wake of Watergate.
During her time as First Lady, Ford was an outspoken advocate of women's rights and was a prominent force in the Women's Movement of the 1970s. She supported the proposed ERA and lobbied state legislatures to ratify the amendment, and took on opponents of the amendment. She was also un-apologetically pro-choice. Her active political role prompted Time to call her the country's "Fighting First Lady" and name her a Woman of the Year in 1975, as representing American women, along with other feminist icons.
In May 1975, during a four-day trip, Ford met with former Prime Minister of the Republic of Vietnam Nguyễn Cao Kỳ to discuss Southeast Asia refugees, Ford afterward stating she was impressed with the conduct of the refugees.
On June 30, 1976, Ford attended the opening of "Remember the Ladies", a Revolutionary War era women exhibit. She drew boos from demonstrators against the Equal Rights Amendment in stating, "This exhibit about neglected Americans should give us strength and courage to seek equal rights for women today."
For a time, it was unclear whether Gerald Ford shared his wife's pro-choice viewpoint. In December 1999, he told interviewer Larry King that he, too, was pro-choice and had been criticized for that stance by conservative forces within the Republican Party.
Weeks after Ford became First Lady, she underwent a mastectomy for breast cancer on September 28, 1974, after having been diagnosed with the disease. Ford decided to be open about her illness because "There had been so much cover-up during Watergate that we wanted to be sure there would be no cover-up in the Ford administration." Her openness about her cancer and treatment raised the visibility of a disease that Americans had previously been reluctant to talk about.
When other women have this same operation, it doesn't make any headlines," she told Time. "But the fact that I was the wife of the President put it in headlines and brought before the public this particular experience I was going through. It made a lot of women realize that it could happen to them. I'm sure I've saved at least one person — maybe more.
Adding to heightened public awareness of breast cancer were reports that several weeks after Ford's cancer surgery, Happy Rockefeller, the wife of vice president Nelson Rockefeller, also had a mastectomy. The spike in women self-examining after Ford went public with the diagnosis led to an increase in reported cases of breast cancer, a phenomenon known as the "Betty Ford blip".
As First Lady, Ford was an advocate of the arts; she was instrumental in gaining award of the Presidential Medal of Freedom for choreographer and dancer Martha Graham in 1976. She received an award from Parsons The New School for Design in recognition of her style.
After leaving the White House in 1977, Ford continued to lead an active public life. In addition to founding the Betty Ford Center, she remained active in women's issues, taking on numerous speaking engagements and lending her name to charities for fundraising. In March 1977, Ford signed with NBC News to appear in two news specials within the following two years along with contributing to Today, and jointly signed with her husband to write their memoirs. In June, Ford was a speaker at the Arthritis Association Convention. In September of that year, Ford traveled to Moscow for a television program taping and to serve as hostess for The Nutcracker. In November, Ford appeared at the opening session of the National Women's Conference in Houston, Texas.
In January 1984, Ford said the six years since beginning her treatment "have been the best years in my life from the standpoint of feeling healthier and feeling more comfortable with myself" during an address at a program in Michigan.
In 1978, the Ford family staged an intervention and forced her to confront her alcoholism and an addiction to opioid analgesics, which had been prescribed in the early 1960s for a pinched nerve. "I liked alcohol," she wrote in her 1987 memoir. "It made me feel warm. And I loved pills. They took away my tension and my pain". She went into treatment for substance abuse.
In 1982, after her recovery, she established the Betty Ford Center (initially called the Betty Ford Clinic) in Rancho Mirage, California, for the treatment of chemical dependency, including treating the children of alcoholics. She served as chair of the board of directors. She also co-authored with Chris Chase a book about her treatment, Betty: A Glad Awakening (1987). In 2003, Ford produced another book, Healing and Hope: Six Women from the Betty Ford Center Share Their Powerful Journeys of Addiction and Recovery. In 2005, Ford relinquished her chair of the center's board of directors to her daughter Susan. She had held the top post at the center since its founding.
Barbara Bush, one of Ford's successors as First Lady, observed that Ford, after discovering she was dependent on drugs, "transformed her pain into something great for the common good. Because she suffered, there will be more healing. Because of her grief, there will be more joy."
Ford continued to be an active leader and activist of the feminist movement after the Ford administration. She continued to strongly advocate and lobby politicians and state legislatures for passage of the ERA. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed Ford to the second National Commission on the Observance of International Women's Year (the first had been appointed by President Ford). That same year, she joined First Ladies Lady Bird Johnson and Rosalynn Carter to open and participate in the National Women's Conference in Houston, Texas, where she endorsed measures in the convention's National Plan of Action, a report sent to the state legislatures, the U.S. Congress, and the President on how to improve the status of American women. Ford continued to be an outspoken supporter of equal pay for women, breast cancer awareness, and the ERA throughout her life.
In 1978, the deadline for ratification of the ERA was extended from 1979 to 1982, resulting largely from a march of a hundred thousand people on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington. The march was led by prominent feminist leaders, including Ford, Bella Abzug, Elizabeth Chittick, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. In 1981, Eleanor Smeal, the National Organization for Women's president, announced Ford's appointment to be the co-chair, with Alan Alda, of the ERA Countdown Campaign. In November 1981, Ford stated that Governor of Illinois James R. Thompson had not done enough in support of the ERA as well as her disappointment with First Lady Nancy Reagan not being in favor of the measure, though also relayed her hopes to change the incumbent First Lady's mind in further encounters with her. As the deadline approached, Ford led marches, parades and rallies for the ERA with other feminists, including First Daughter Maureen Reagan and various Hollywood actors. Ford was credited with rejuvenating the ERA movement and inspiring more women to continue working for the ERA. She visited states, including Illinois, where ratification was believed to have the most realistic chance of passing. The amendment did not receive enough states' ratification. In 2004, Ford reaffirmed her pro-choice stance and her support for the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, as well as her belief in and support for the ratification of the ERA.
In November 18, 1991, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George H.W. Bush and a Congressional Gold Medal in 1999. That same year, a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars was dedicated to her and her husband.
During these years, she and her husband resided in Rancho Mirage and in Beaver Creek, Colorado. Gerald Ford died, aged 93, of heart failure on December 26, 2006 at their Rancho Mirage home. Despite her advanced age and own frail physical condition, Ford traveled across the country and took part in the funeral events in California, Washington, D.C., and Michigan.
Following her husband's death, Ford continued to live in Rancho Mirage. Poor health and increasing frailty due to operations in August 2006 and April 2007 for blood clots in her legs caused her to largely curtail her public life. Her ill health prevented her from attending Lady Bird Johnson's funeral in July 2007; her daughter Susan Ford represented her mother at the funeral service.
Betty Ford died of natural causes on July 8, 2011, three months after her 93rd birthday, at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage. Coincidentally, she and her husband Gerald Ford were both 93 when they died; Gerald's lifespan being 74 days longer than Betty's.
Funeral services were held in Palm Desert, California, on July 12, 2011, with over 800 people in attendance, including former president George W. Bush, then-First Lady Michelle Obama, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former First Lady Rosalynn Carter and former first lady Nancy Reagan.
On July 14, a second service was held at Grace Episcopal Church with eulogies given by Lynne Cheney, former Ford Museum director Richard Norton Smith, and Ford's son Steven. In attendance were former president Bill Clinton, former vice president Dick Cheney and former first lady Barbara Bush. In her remarks, Mrs. Cheney noted that July 14 would have been Gerald Ford's 98th birthday. After the service, she was buried next to her husband on the museum grounds.
Betty Ford (1918 – ) ... Presidential Medal of Freedom received November 18, 1991
Title last held byJudy Agnew
| Second Lady of the United States
Title next held byHappy Rockefeller
| First Lady of the United States