An Influential First Lady: Who Was Betty Ford? | History Hit

An Influential First Lady: Who Was Betty Ford?

Ford viewing the Queen's Sitting Room during a Tour of the White House, 1977
Image Credit: National Archives and Records Administration, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Betty Ford, née Elizabeth Anne Bloomer (1918-2011) was one of the most impactful first ladies in the history of the United States. As the wife of President Gerald Ford (president from 1974-77), she was a passionate social activist and was well-liked by the electorate, with some members of the public even wearing badges that read ‘vote for Betty’s husband.’

Ford’s popularity was in part because of her candour when discussing her cancer diagnosis, as well as her passionate support for causes such as abortion rights, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and gun control. However, Ford’s path to first lady wasn’t without its challenges, with difficulties during her early life influencing the views she was admired for.

During his inauguration, Gerald Ford remarked, ‘I am indebted to no man and only one woman, my dear wife, Betty, as I begin this very difficult job.’

So who was Betty Ford?

1. She was one of three children

Elizabeth (nicknamed Betty) Bloomer was one of three children born to salesman William Bloomer and Hortense Neahr Bloomer in Chicago, Illinois. Aged two, the family moved to Michigan, where she attended public schools and eventually graduated from Central High School.

2. She trained to be a professional dancer

In 1926, eight-year-old Ford took dance lessons in ballet, tap and modern movement. This inspired a lifelong passion, and she decided she wanted to seek a career in dance. Aged 14, she started modelling clothes and teaching dance to earn money in the wake of the Great Depression. After graduating from high school, though her mother initially refused, she studied dance in New York. However, she later returned home and, becoming immersed in her life in Grand Rapids, decided against returning to her dance studies.

Photograph of Ford dancing on the table of the Cabinet Room

Image Credit: National Archives and Records Administration, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

3. Her father’s death influenced her views on gender equality

When Ford was 16, her father died of carbon monoxide poisoning while working on the family car in the garage. It was never confirmed whether it was an accident or suicide. With Ford’s father’s death, the family lost most of their income, meaning Ford’s mother had to start working as a real estate agent. Ford’s mother later remarried a family friend and neighbour. It was in part because Ford’s mother worked for a time as a single mother that Ford later became such a strong advocate for women’s rights.

4. She married twice

In 1942, Ford met and married William Warren, an alcoholic and diabetic who was in poor health. Ford reportedly knew the marriage was failing only a few years into their relationship. Shortly after Ford decided to divorce Warren, he fell into a coma, so she lived at his family home for two years to support him. After he recovered, they divorced.

Shortly after, Ford met Gerald R. Ford, a local lawyer. They were engaged in early 1948, but delayed their wedding so Gerald could devote more time to campaigning for a seat in the House of Representatives. They married in October 1948, and remained so for 58 years until Gerald Ford’s death.

5. She had four children

Between 1950 and 1957, Ford had three sons and a daughter. Since Gerald was often away campaigning, most of the parenting responsibilities fell to Ford, who joked that the family car went to the emergency room so often that it could make the trip on its own.

Betty and Gerald Ford riding in the presidential limousine in 1974

Image Credit: David Hume Kennerly, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

6. She became addicted to painkillers and alcohol

In 1964, Ford developed a painful pinched nerve and spinal arthritis. She later began to suffer from muscle spasms, peripheral neuropathy, numbing the left side of her neck and arthritis on her shoulder and arm. She was given medication such as Valium, to which she became addicted for the best part of 15 years. In 1965, she suffered a severe nervous breakdown, and her pill and alcohol consumption reached an all-time high.

Later, when Gerald lost the election of 1976 to Jimmy Carter, the couple retired to California. After pressure from her family, in 1978, Ford finally agreed to enter a treatment centre for her addiction. After successful treatment, in 1982 she co-founded the Betty Ford Center to help people with similar addictions, and remained the director until 2005.

7. She was a candid and supportive first lady

Ford’s life became far busier after October 1973 when Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned and President Nixon named Gerald Ford as his replacement, and then when her husband became president following Nixon’s resignation in 1974 after his involvement in the Watergate scandal. Gerald thus became the first president who had never been elected vice president or president in US history.

Throughout her career, Ford frequently recorded radio advertisements and spoke at rallies for her husband. When Gerald lost to Carter in the election, it was Betty who delivered his concession speech, due to her husband having laryngitis in the last days of the campaign.

Betty Ford joining dance students at the May 7th College of Art in Beijing, China. 03 December 1975

Image Credit: National Archives and Records Administration, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

8. She spoke publicly about her cancer treatment

On 28 September 1974, just weeks after she moved into the White House, Ford’s doctors performed a mastectomy to remove her cancerous right breast. Chemotherapy then followed. Previous president’s wives had largely concealed their illnesses, but Ford and her husband decided to inform the public. Women across the nation were moved by Ford’s example and went to their doctors for examinations, and Ford reported that it was at that time that she recognised the potential for the first lady to make a huge difference to the nation.

9. She was a supporter of Roe vs. Wade

Only a few days after moving into the White House, Ford surprised reporters by announcing that she supported various standpoints such Roe vs. Wade and the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Dubbed ‘First Mama’, Betty Ford became known for her outspokenness on subjects such as pre-marital sex, equal rights for women, abortion, divorce, drugs and gun control. Though Gerald Ford was worried that his wife’s strong opinions would hinder his popularity, the nation instead welcomed her openness, and at one time her approval rating reached 75%.

Later, her work at the Betty Ford Center she began to understand the link between drug addiction and those suffering from HIV/AIDS, so supported gay and lesbian rights movements and spoke out in favour of same-sex marriage.

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10. She was named TIME Magazine’s Woman of the Year

In 1975, Ford was named TIME Magazine’s Woman of the Year. In 1991, she was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom by US President George H. W. Bush for her efforts to promote public awareness and treatment of alcohol and drug addition. In 1999, Ford and her husband received a Congressional Gold Medal. In all, historians today widely consider Betty Ford to have been amongst the most impactful and courageous of any US first lady in history.

Lucy Davidson