Betty Ford, Modern First Lady

For many who grew up in the 1990s and beyond, the name “Betty Ford” brings to mind rehab, celebrities going to dry out or get clean. But the revolutionary rehab clinic that bears her name is just one legacy of former first lady Betty Ford (1918 - 2011).

By some measures, Betty Ford was an unconventional first lady. While her immediate predecessors tended toward decorum and genteel causes – Lady Bird Johnson supported conservation and beautification, Pat Nixon promoted volunteerism – Ford spoke her mind and didn’t seem to worry too much about what was “proper” for a first lady. She had strong political convictions and didn’t hesitate to fight for the causes that were dear to her heart – abortion rights, breast cancer awareness, the Equal Rights Amendment – even if her stance was contrary to that of her husband and the Republican party.

Ford may have been unconventional as far as first ladies went (though America has certainly had its share of outspoken, politically-engaged first ladies). But if Ford stands out among U.S. first ladies, it may be because she fits in so beautifully with the women of her era. A modern woman, Ford reflected the times she lived in.

When Gerald Ford took office in 1974, American attitudes toward women were changing. Traditional expectations of women – modesty, cheerfulness, deference to their husbands – were going the way of the bra as more and more women challenged the status quo and took charge of their lives, careers, and bodies. With candor and passion, Betty Ford echoed the sentiments of the era and used her unique platform as first lady to speak her mind.

Ford didn’t always agree with her husband or the Republican party. She supported access to abortion, for example, and actively supported Roe v. Wade, while her husband, President Ford, opposed it. Despite their differences, the Fords were happily married for 58 years, until his death in 2006. Indeed, it would seem that Betty wielded some influence when it came to Gerald's political beliefs; in 1999 he revealed that he, too, was pro-choice.

Just as Betty Ford was outspoken about her political views, she wasn’t afraid to be candid about her personal life. Her breast cancer and mastectomy were national news at a time when cancer was still mostly kept behind closed doors. She was public about her addictions to pain pills and alcohol and established the Betty Ford Center to help others suffering from addiction. It seemed no subject was off-limits to Ford, as she cheerfully discussed with reporters her sessions with a psychiatrist, the possibility that her daughter had used marijuana and had premarital sex, and even her own sex life with the president. Some citizens were shocked, but the majority loved the first lady’s openness, leading to a 75 percent approval rating (which far surpassed her husband’s).

Ford did much to change our expectations first ladies and women. She also serves as a reminder of the power of democracy and the importance of freedom of speech: no matter who you are, no matter who you are married to, your are entitled to your express your own opinion. It is a free country, after all.