Health

Betty Ford, America's 'Fighting First Lady,' Fought for Women's Rights

| by Denise A Justin

A private funeral service for Betty Ford, the 40th First Lady of the United States, was held on July 12, 2011, at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Palm Desert, California, About 1,000 family member, friends, and dignitaries are expected to attend, including current First Lady Michelle Obama, reports the Chicago Tribune.

Ms. Ford, 93, passed away on Friday, July 8, at the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, CA, according to the family spokeswoman.

Her body will then be flown on Wednesday to Grand Rapids Michigan, where another service will celebrate her life in the city where she married Gerald Ford, a lawyer and World War II veteran, on October 15, 1948, at Grace Episcopal Church. 

The Fords were married 58 years and were said to be “among the most openly affectionate First Couples in American history.”  She will be buried by his side on Thursday on the grounds of the Gerald R. Ford Museum.

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The “Fighting First Lady

Betty Ford served as First Lady of the United States from 1974 to 1977 during the presidency of her second husband, Gerald Ford.  She commanded her own place in history as a beloved political activist who worked for moderate and liberal issues in a conservative Republican environment.

After a mastectomy in 1974, Ms. Ford devoted her energy to raising breast cancer awareness. In an era when cancer was discussed in hushed tones and mastectomy was still a taboo topic, the First Lady shared the specifics of her breast cancer surgery. The publicity helped bring the disease into the open and to inspire women to seek regular breast examinations.

Betty Ford was unquestionably one of the most candid First Ladies in American history, voicing her opinions regarding every hot-button issue, including feminism and equal pay for women, sex, drugs and gun control.   

Her active political role prompted Time Magazine to call her the country's "Fighting First Lady" and name her a Woman of the Year in 1975.

She was an outspoken supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and a leader in the Women’s Movement.  A Pro-choice leader for a woman’s right to abortion, she stated, "Having babies is a blessing, not a duty."

She mused that living together before marriage might be wise, thought women should be drafted into the military if men were, and realistically stated she assumed her young adult children probably had smoked marijuana -- and if she were their age, she'd try it, too.

She endeared herself to the nation, and to the world, by publicly announcing and discussing her own long-running battle with alcoholism and speaking openly about addiction.

She was co-founder, and served as the first chairwoman of the board of the non-profit Betty Ford Center for substance abuse and addiction, located near the Ford’s home in Rancho Mirage, CA. She raised millions of dollars for the Center and is said to have regularly welcomed groups of new patients with a speech that started, "Hello, my name's Betty Ford, and I'm an alcoholic and drug addict."

Betty Ford also was  a recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal (co-presentation with her husband, Gerald R. Ford, October 21, 1998) and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (alone, presented 1991, by George H.W. Bush).

Elizabeth Ann Bloomer to Betty Ford

Born Elizabeth Ann Bloomer in Chicago, Illinois, on April 8, 1918, Betty was the youngest of three children, with two older brothers, Robert and William Jr. The family lived briefly in Denver, Colorado, and then moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she graduated from Central High School.

According to The Washington Post, “She was headstrong, a tomboy. She smoked cigarettes at 14. She played hockey and football with the boys, until her brothers made her stop. She was beautiful and blew off the idea of college to move to New York to become a dancer for Martha Graham.”

Betty began modeling clothes when was only 14, after the 1929 stock market crash.  She fell in love with dance and taught ballroom dancing to children.  She entertained and worked with children with disabilities at the Mary Free Bed Home for Crippled Children and graduated from the Calla Travis Dance Studio in 1935.

When she was only 16 years old, her father died the day before his 60th birthday of carbon monoxide poisoning in the family's garage while working under their car. The Washington Post states that Bill Bloomer “drank and drank and drank” and his death was either accidental or a possible suicide.  Betty graduated from high school in 1936 and attended the Bennington School of Dance in Vermont for two summers.

Free-spirited and adventurous, she moved to New York City, lived in Greenwich Village, and worked as a fashion model for the John Robert Powers firm in order to finance her dance studies, joined a dance troupe and eventually performed with the company at Carnegie Hall.  She later returned to Grand Rapids, where she organized her own group and taught dance while working as a fashion coordinator for a leading department store.

In 1942, she married William C. Warren, whom she had known since she was 12. Warren was a salesman and the couple moved frequently, finally returning to Grand Rapids, where this time Betty became "The" Fashion Coordinator at Herpolsheimer's department store.

Warren was an alcoholic, in poor health and lapsed into a coma just after Betty decided to file for divorce. She stayed and took care of him for another two years, and they were finally divorced on September 22, 1947, on the grounds of "excessive, repeated cruelty” They had no children.

On October 15, 1948, she married Gerald Ford, who was then campaigning for what would be his first of thirteen terms as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.   Their wedding was delayed until shortly before the elections.   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."

In Love for 58 Years

Betty and Gerald Ford were married for fifty-eight years until his death in 2006. The couple had three sons and a daughter.  Ford was appointed Vice President to Richard Nixon  upon the resignation of Spiro Agnew. He became president in 1974, when Nixon resigned as a result of the Watergate scandal.

Gerald Ford's was defeated by Jimmy Carter in the 1976 Presidential election, and Betty delivered her husband's concession speech because he had lost his voice while campaigning

The Fords did not keep their mutual love and equal respect a secret and are said to have been among the ”more openly affectionate First Couples in American history.”  Neither was shy about their strong and enduring personal and political partnership. 

In a McCall's interview in 1975, Betty Ford said reporters had asked her everything but how often she slept with her husband, "and if they'd asked me that I would have told them." And her answer? According to The Washington Post, “As often as possible.”

“Mother's love, candor, devotion, and laughter enriched our lives and the lives of the millions she touched throughout this great nation," her family said in a statement released late Friday.

"To be in her presence was to know the warmth of a truly great lady."

Sources: 

L.A. Daily News, http://www.dailynews.com/news/ci_18441797

The Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/12/28/AR2006122801500_pf.html

Chicago Tribune,   http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/chi-michelle-obama-to-attend-betty-ford-funeral-tuesday-20110711,0,916528.story

Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Betty_Ford

“Betty: A Glad Awakening" (Ford, B. & Chase, C., 1988)