For many of those who grew up in the 1990s and beyond, "Betty Ford" is the name of a rehab center where celebs go to dry out, and little more. But as we mourn the former first lady's death, we're remembering that she was the driving force behind that revolutionary center… and much more.
Seen from one angle, Betty Ford was an unconventional first lady. While her predecessors tended toward decorum and genteel causes – Lady Bird Johnson's beautification project, Pat Nixon's volunteerism – Ford spoke her mind and didn't worry too hard about what was "proper" for a first lady. She had strong political convictions and she didn't hesitate to fight for the causes that were dear to her heart – abortion rights, breast cancer awareness, the Equal Rights Amendment.
Unconventional, maybe… but seen from another view, Betty Ford was simply a modern woman, a reflection of her times. The first ladies of the 1960s and earlier displayed their eras' preferred characteristics for women in the public eye: modesty, cheerfulness, and general agreement with their husbands' policies. But by the time Gerald Ford took office in 1974, American attitudes were changing. More and more, women were speaking out and taking charge of their lives and their bodies. Betty Ford's candor and passion made her a classic woman of the '70s.
Though Betty Ford didn't always agree with her Republican husband's viewpoints – notably in the case of abortion, which had Gerald opposing Roe v. Wade and Betty supporting it – it was a loving marriage, one that lasted 58 years until his 2006 death. Indeed, it may be that Betty's strong opinions helped influence her beloved husband's positions, because he revealed in 1999 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 so public about her addictions to pain pills and alcohol that she established the legendary Betty Ford Center. 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% approval rating (which far surpassed her husband's).
Betty Ford did much to change our expectations of our first lady, and the women who came after her have reflected this – most have been, like Ford, unafraid to stand up for the causes that matter to them. From Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign to Michelle Obama's "Let's Move!" initiative, modern first ladies step into the spotlight to make the changes that are important to them. They can thank Betty Ford for paving the way.