A Tribute to Our Accidental First Lady
Former First Lady Betty Ford was recently laid to rest beside her husband — the man she always called her boyfriend — her amazing life of 93 years having come to a peaceful end. Because many of you under the age of 40 may know little about her, I want to share with you some insight into this remarkable woman and the path she blazed for all of us.
In 1974, due to the resignation of President Richard Nixon, and after serving as vice president for only one year, Gerald Ford took over our nation’s highest office. Suddenly, Betty Ford was unexpectedly thrust into the White House and the limelight, and became known as “the accidental first lady.” As accidental as it may have been, she embraced the role like Americans had never seen before; with a candor and humanity that was unheard of at the time.
Betty used her position to become an advocate for women’s rights. Remember, the early 70s was a far more chauvinistic era than today. She will be remembered for enforcing the notion that “being ladylike does not require silence.” She spoke of the contributions of women as wives and mothers. “We have to take the ‘just’ out of the phrase, ‘just a housewife,’” she insisted.
In arguably one of the programs most candid interviews of its time, she brazenly went on 60 Minutes in 1975 and discussed the topic of premarital sex and how she would counsel her own teenage daughter. And she famously told a magazine reporter that she had sex with her husband “as often as possible.”
Presidential advisers told Gerald that she was out of control and a political liability. But — and this is what I loved about Gerald Ford — he took a stance and held his ground to support his wife, come hell or high water. It was well chronicled how he loved the way she badgered him to pass the Equal Rights Act, and the need to appoint a woman to the Supreme Court.
But it was after her years in the White House that Betty Ford made her most lasting impact. She publicly discussed her battle with breast cancer and her struggles with drugs and alcohol, bringing much-needed awareness to the then-taboo subjects.
In fact, much like the courageous people who come on the Dr. Phil show, she confronted her demons head on, including openly admitting to taking as many as 20-30 pills a day, most of them tranquilizers. She talked about missing meetings, shuffling groggily around the house in her bathrobe, forgetting conversations with her children, and even falling and cracking a rib. She spoke of the pains her addictions caused her family and of the intervention orchestrated to save her life. One week before her 60th birthday, family, friends and a team of medical professionals gathered in the Ford’s California home and one by one told Betty how her addictions were hurting them and destroying her. “I was dying,” she said, “and everybody knew it but me.”
And remember, Betty opened this dialogue at a time when millions of women were going through the same issues suffered in silence. It may be difficult for those of you born after 1980, or even 1970, to understand that these things were just not talked about. But Betty Ford gave other women the courage to speak the truth about what was going on in their lives. When she discussed her breast cancer diagnosis, the American Cancer Society reported a 400% increase in requests for breast cancer screenings, meaning tens of thousands of women sought mammograms.
Then, she raised money to build the non-profit Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, CA that provides treatment services to those who suffer from addictions. That might be her greatest legacy. In doing so, she reduced social stigmas surrounding addiction and inspired thousands to seek much-needed treatment. Her contributions were more than name only. Well into her 80s, Betty remained actively involved at her center, regularly welcoming new residents. Once a month, she began a meeting with patients by saying, “Hello, I’m Betty Ford, and I’m an alcoholic and addict.”
An accidental first lady? I don’t think so. Her legacy was that of someone born for the role, and her outspoken courage and candor made her more of a hero than anyone could have imagined. Thank you, Mrs. Ford, for being an inspiration to women, sharing with us your remarkable life and encouraging people to continuously better themselves.