The Social and Political Influence of Betty Ford: Betty Bloomer Blossoms. (Features: "Profile")

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Date: Winter 2001
From: White House Studies(Vol. 1, Issue 1)
Publisher: Nova Science Publishers, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 3,772 words

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The political development of Betty Ford is a story worth considering. A somewhat traditional and reluctant politicians wife, Mrs. Ford emerged as a bold, straight-talking first lady whose service in the White House marked a critical point in the transition of the office. The key developments in her political life and first ladyship are reconsidered.


Elizabeth (Betty) Bloomer Ford overcame great hurdles and difficult times in her life and emerged as a role model for men and women across the United States. Consider her trials and accomplishments: Her candid discussions of various social issues such as abortion and equal rights for women were a refreshing breath of air during a time of social and political unrest. Her struggles with cancer and alcohol addiction made it acceptable for other people to address these health problems as well. If Betty Ford, the first lady, could cope with breast cancer, then it should be possible for other women to seek treatment too. If such a dynamic public figure could face the press and admit that alcohol bad become a problem in her life, others could do the same. Indeed, Betty Ford's positive influence in these areas and the number of people she helped as a result of her actions, is perhaps unparalleled. Overall, her influence in the social arena has been profound.

Politically, Betty Ford was no less influential-although her behind-the-scenes influence on policy is not as well documented. Betty Ford was able to make the transition from soft-spoken, seldom seen, congressional housewife and mother, to strong-willed wife political partner in a relatively short period of time. The focus of this paper is on a snapshot period in the life of a remarkable woman who has essentially lived four lives; that is to say that her history can be viewed in terms of four distinct periods: 1) the preJerry era; 2) the congressional period; 3) the White House years; and 4) the post-White House period. This profile focuses on the White House period, the time for which Betty Ford is most often remembered.


Gerald R. Ford was sworn in as the 38th President of the United States on August 9, 1974 -a day which Betty Ford has described as "the saddest day of my life." (1) Part of the sadness stemmed from the fact that the Fords and Nixons were friends. She was particularly fond of Pat Nixon whom she thought was a "very warm, friendly person." (2) Betty, being a caring person herself, hated seeing the pain and agony going on in the White House as the Nixons were in hiding, sealed off in isolation from the media and the rest of the world. Of the protests going on outside, Betty felt that the personal attacks against Pat were particularly cruel and unfair. The remainder of the sadness of August 9th found its roots in fear, nervousness, and apprehension.

Betty Ford had, for most of her husband's political career, led a fairly low-key existence. Taking a more conservative, traditional approach to her role in their marital partnership, Betty preferred to be seen, not heard (in public), and to shelter her family from the limelight. This approach was commented on early in Gerald Ford's congressional career by one writer who stated, "Mrs. Ford believes that wives of congressmen look better on a speaking platform when they're saying nothing. She leaves the politics to her husband." (3) And Gerald Ford did politic. It was common for him to be away for more than half of the year and this left Betty in charge of home and family.

While caring for four children and maintaining a household while dad was rarely home presented a tremendous amount of challenge and stress, it was a different type of pressure than that associated with being in the public eye. Even the transition into the vice presidency had been difficult. The Fords had been planning on retiring and leaving public life. They had done their part in serving this country and believed it was time for them to focus on themselves and their family. Together, they had decided that Gerald Ford's next campaign would be his last. But the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew changed their plans.

With Agnew gone, there was speculation that Gerald Ford would be named Nixon's vice president--something Betty dismissed (after all, she reasoned, he was too important for the party in Congress). Betty was so certain that Gerald would not be named (she felt it would be John Connally) that she made a five dollar bet with her daughter, Susan. Betty lost. (4) Betty was excited for her husband but was inwardly saddened that their retirement plans would be put on hold. While Betty was disappointed, she put on her public face and pushed forward. According to Leesa Tobin, an archivist for the Gerald R. Ford Library, Betty "responded as a true politician's wife." (5) Betty reportedly stated, "well, if they just wind me up and point me in the right direction, I'll be there." (6)

While she was second lady (wife of the vice president), Betty had reluctantly given a number of interviews but was never very comfortable in this role. Even though her aides were setting the ground rules for any discussions, the interviews were, in Betty's words, "terrifying." (7) One interview in particular should have provided some clue as to the type of person Betty Ford really was, and the type of first lady she would become--the Barbara Walters interview. Despite the fact that Betty agreed to do the show with the understanding that they would not discuss anything political, it was inevitable. The question, however, was not on the lighter side of politics: Barbara asked Betty how she felt about the recent Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. When Betty responded that she supported the decision and believed that it was "time to bring abortion out of the backwoods and put it in the hospitals where it belonged," her reputation for refreshing honesty and candor was established. (8) This, however, did not di minish the fact that Betty was uncomfortable in the spotlight and preferred to stick to her traditional role as mother and CEO of the family.

The Fords had barely enough time to adjust to the added stress and pressure of the vice presidency when they were suddenly thrust onto center stage after President Nixon's resignation--Gerald Ford was President of the United States and Betty Ford was the First Lady. Betty Ford experienced her saddest day and was suddenly expected to take on a role which was uncomfortably foreign to her. However, Betty was a quick study and took to the role of first lady in a way no one had imagined possible.


No one really expected Mrs. Ford to make any kind of mark in her husband's presidency. In fact, as a gesture of good will, a holdover from the Nixon staff created a list of "appropriate activities" for the new First Lady to follow--a list which included such benign activities as entertaining disabled veterans and the handicapped, providing interviews to women's magazines, planning fashion shows, and teaching Sunday school in the White House. (9) Despite the low expectations and her tendency to be ill-at-ease with the press, a number of occurrences early in the Ford presidency made Betty aware of the potential for influence she held as first lady. Even with the tremendous outpouring of mail in the wake of the Barbara Walters interview (most of it negative), Betty had failed to realize the full magnitude of her position. However, after her first press conference as first lady, the power she held slowly began to dawn on her. This press conference marked a critical series of events that truly helped shape Betty F ord from a soft-spoken, somewhat camera shy congressional wife into one of the most outspoken, powerful first ladies of the modern era--a woman whose social and political influence was unheard of for the times.

The Press Conference and Support for Equal Rights

A seemingly innocent press conference held early in the Ford presidency marked the beginning of Betty Ford's movement towards social and political activism. Despite the fact that this was the first formal press conference held by a first lady since 1952, there was little reason to believe that Mrs. Ford was going to have any goals that carried even a hint of controversy. As she outlined her plans, the press corps' expectations appeared to be confirmed. She began by stating that she intended to focus on promoting programs for underprivileged and mentally challenged children. She also stated that she intended to concentrate on attaining greater support for the arts (something which was only natural given her background as a dancer). These were two very noncontroversial topics which, by themselves, would have been very much in line with the traditional role of the first lady. Then, Betty dropped the bomb--she told reporters she favored greater political participation by women, she reiterated her support of the S upreme Court ruling on abortion, and she planned on using her office to work towards passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). (10)

The amount of press that Betty received after announcing her support for the Equal Rights Amendment, coupled with an increasing number of letters, began to reveal that people were listening. Over time, as Betty became more and more involved with the ERA, the amount of mail increased dramatically. Betty was actually perceived by anti-ERA forces as being such a threat that Phyllis Schafly of "STOP ERA" requested that Betty provide an accounting of how much federal money was being spent on the endorsement--either through telephone bills, staff time, or salaries of other federal officials working on the issue. (11) At the time of the initial press conference, however, the influence that Betty wielded was only beginning to develop and she was only marginally aware of her potential power.

Cancer and Being a Role Model

One event can be seen as a turning point in Betty Ford's political life. It was also an emotional and pivotal point in the lives of the entire Ford family. The date of this event was September 26, 1974-the day Betty Ford was diagnosed with breast cancer.

The date was one of pure coincidence, as Betty had not intended to go the doctor's office at all. Her personal assistant, Nancy Howe, was scheduled to see her physician and Betty decided to go along. Since it was around the time for her six month gynecological check-up, Betty decided to have herself examined. When a tumor was discovered, Betty and the rest of the Fords were in shock. Despite the very private nature of the situation, Betty made an important decision which would have a tremendous social impact--she decided to make her condition known to the public. While she could have quietly had the tumor removed and gone on with her life as if nothing had happened, Betty decided to discuss the uncomfortable issue of breast cancer and her ensuing mastectomy. While such a decision was undoubtedly difficult, Betty, being a very unassuming person, acted as if she had no choice at all. According to her, "I got a lot of credit for having gone public with my mastectomy, but if I hadn't been the wife of the Preside nt of the United States, the press would not have come racing after my story, so in a way it was fate." (12) She added, "there had been so much cover-up during Watergate that we wanted to be sure there would be no cover-up in the Ford administration. So rather than continue this traditional silence about breast cancer, we felt we had to be very public." (13) These are very modest statements which tend to underplay the heroics of Betty's decision and the impact that the decision had on her career, the public, and the issue of breast cancer.

By going public with her cancer and mastectomy, Betty Ford was personally responsible for increased public awareness of the issues. After Betty went public to alert as many women as possible to the benefits of early detection, millions of women scheduled appointments at breast cancer clinics across the country. According to journalist Lisa Liebman, "her courage and candor not only removed the stigma from the topic but also saved countless lives." (14) (Among the lives saved was Happy Rockefeller, the vice president's wife, who underwent a mastectomy shortly after Betty). (15)

The response was overwhelming and the letters poured in-much more so than after her first press conference, and nearly all of them positive. Betty received over 55,000 cards and letters from women who had mastectomies or who were encouraged by Betty's experience to get check-ups. From the standpoint of shaping her attitude towards the Office of First Lady, the response was critical. For the first time, Betty truly understood the extraordinary power she held. According to Mrs. Ford, "I'd come to recognize more clearly the power of the woman in the White House. Not my power, but the power of the position, a power which could be used to help." (16) Once again, words of modesty, as Betty Ford was able to use the power like few had before her. She began to evolve into the first lady she would become and the transformation was not lost on those around her. According to her son, Jack, the experience allowed Betty to break from the past and focus more towards the future as a woman, with a vision, in a position to ma ke things happen. In his words, She could have just sat around feeling sorry for herself, or been very hush-hush about it. But she decided to bring it all out in the open, to tell it is. I think that's when she truly realized she had her own identity, when she told the whole country about her illness and shared this intimate thing. It's a funny connection, but I think the way she spoke up about her illness was responsible for her strong support of the Equal Rights Amendment. She finally became her own person. (17)

If the public support and response to her cancer were not enough to solidify her reputation of being forthright and candid, a 1975 interview would seal it. By the time of this interview, the once reserved congressional wife with a certain fear of interviews was in full bloom and appeared to be fully confident in her role as first lady.

The 60 Minutes Interview

The Betty Ford that most people remember was comfortable with her views and at ease in discussing them during August of 1975. The nation had a first lady who had independent thoughts and felt confident enough in herself to express her opinion. Her stand on ERA had been firmly established, her position on abortion was well known, and she had become the champion for women with breast cancer across the nation. Betty Ford was on a roll and her popularity was unprecedented--for much of the Ford presidency, Betty enjoyed higher ratings than her husband. Nothing, however, could have braced the nation for the honesty Betty would display during an interview for the CBS evening show, 60 minutes.

During an interview with Morley Safer, which was broadcast August 10, 1975, Betty was asked about various controversial social and political issues such as equal rights, abortion, drugs, and pre-marital sex. (18) In the short span of this conversation, Betty was able to state that if she had been young during the 1970s she probably would have tried marijuana and that her children probably had. She called the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade a "great, great, decision," something which she had done before. As Betty had discussed both topics before, there was no new controversy that could emerge from these particular issues. Then, Safer dropped the bomb by asking "what if Susan Ford came to you and said, 'mother, I'm having an affair?'" (19) Betty, in typically honest fashion, responded that she would not be surprised since Susan was a perfectly normal human being and was like all young girls. She added that if Susan did come to her, she would give her advice and support. She went on to say that she felt S usan was a little young to start having affairs. Betty had not intended to endorse premarital sex (she was still somewhat old fashioned in her beliefs). Her intent was to be open minded and to show compassion for her daughter in this hypothetical scenario--the result was to open a flood gate of controversy.

Initial response was overwhelmingly negative and hostile with comments such as "you are no lady--first--second--or last. Keep your stupid views to yourself from now on." (20) Another individual commented, "our recent history has seen this nation's First Ladies dedicating themselves to restoring the White House; beautifying America; and remaining silent. You, Mrs. Ford, should take an example from this latter group." (21) Gearing up for the 1976 election and vying for his party's nomination, her husband suggested that her comments had cost him 10 million votes--upon further reflection, and seeing the quotes in the paper, he amended the figure to 20 million lost votes. (22)

Not all response was negative, however. In fact, in the long run, the frankness and refreshing honesty shown by Mrs. Ford during the interview actually boosted her popularity. One woman wrote:

I am 83 years old, and one of my friends calls me the last of the Puritans. I haven't been able to decide what our society should do about abortion, and sex relations, and marijuana. But I do know what I think about honesty. I'm for it. And I am deeply grateful that we someone in the White House who thinks integrity is more important than political advantage. Many thanks for your refreshing example. (23)

More support poured in! Even those who did not agree with her views felt she was a positive role model for democracy and free thought. One St. Louis radio station aired the following commentary (despite the fact that they had continuously campaigned against ERA):

We heartily approve of Mrs. Ford's working for passage of ERA or any other political goal ...When we start regarding political activity by a first lady, or any citizen, as "demeaning," our democracy is in big trouble. (24)

Elizabeth (Betty) Bloomer Ford had come into her own!


The Fords attempted to remain in the White House but Gerald Ford was defeated in the 1976 election by Jimmy Carter. Throughout the campaign, Betty Ford played an integral role. The woman who had once preferred to be seen on a platform remaining silent, had found her voice--and what a voice it was! Her notoriety and widespread support made her much more of an asset than a liability. When Gerald had commented that her 60 minutes interview had cost him 20 million votes, a more astute observer noted "Nonsense, she won you thirty." (25)

The observer was correct. As the campaign progressed, more and more people could be seen wearing buttons which read "BETTY'S HUSBAND FOR PRESIDENT." Despite the fact that they lost the election, Betty Ford's straightforward, honest (though controversial) approach to politics and life had won the hearts of the public and had shaped the future of the Office of the First Lady. Mrs. Ford had an impact and left behind a legacy--she made it possible and, in the eyes of some, even expected for the first lady to have an agenda and to speak out on political issues. In the words of reporter Mary Louis Oates, "Betty Ford was, and is, the bridge to the modem First Lady." (26)

Jeffrey S. Ashley, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Eastern Illinois University. He taught previously at Saginaw Valley State University. The co-author of Groundwater Management in the West (University of Nebraska Press, 1999) and the forthcoming Indian Tribal Governments in the US. Federal System (Praeger), he has also written on First Lady Betty Ford and is completing a biography of Mrs. Ford (Nova History Books).


(1.) Betty Ford (with Chris Chase), The Times of My Life (New York: Harper and Row, 1978), P. 1.

(2.) "Betty Ford: Today Still Speaking Out," Ms. (April 1984), p. 41.

(3.) Elizabeth Ford, "Meet Capital's Not-So-VIPs," Washington Post (April 5, 1954), p. 95.

(4.) Ford, 1978.

(5.) Leesa E. Tobin, "Betty Ford as First Lady: A Woman for Women," Presidential Studies Quarterly Fall (1990).

(6.) Jane Howard, "Forward Day by Day," The New York Times Magazine (December 8, 1974), P. 36.

(7.) Ford, 1978.

(8.) Ibid.

(9.) Tobin, 1990.

(10.) See Tobin, 1990 or Karen M. Rohrer, "If There Was Anything You Forgot to Ask... The Betty Ford Papers," Prologue: The Journal of the National Archives Summer (1987).

(11.) Rohrer, 1987.

(12.) Ford, 1978.

(13.) "Betty Ford: Still Speaking Out Today," 1984.

(14.) Lisa Liebman, "New Women People of the Year," New Woman December (1991).

(15.) "If There Was Anything You Forgot to Ask..." Also included in this article is a quote from the New York Times Magazine which emphasizes the importance of Mrs. Ford's decision to go public with her cancer. In this quote, the magazine stated that if Mrs. Ford "achieved nothing else during her husband's administration, the light her trouble has shed on a dark subject would be contribution enough." A very powerful statement and glowing endorsement indeed.

(16.) Ford, 1978.

(17.) Gary Kinder, "Jack: The New Model Ford," Good Housekeeping November (1975).

(18.) See Kinder, 1975 or Jerald F. terHorst, Gerald Ford and the Future of the Presidency (New York: The Third Press, 1974), p. 201. Mr. terHorst discusses how those opposed to the ERA believed that support from someone as potentially influential as Betty Ford was an abuse of government funds.

(19.) Excerpts from the interview transcript can be found in Sheila Rabb Weidenfeld, First Lady's Lady: With the Fords at the White House (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1979), p. 173.

(20.) Rohrer, 1987.

(21.) Ibid.

(22.) There are many accounts of the president's response. For example, see Betty Ford's autobiography (p. 208), Rohrer, 1987, p. 151, or Weidenfeld, 1979, p. 172.

(23.) Rohrer, 1987 p. 151.

(24.) The quote is part of an editorial issued by a St. Louis radio station in response to charges by an Illinois representative's charges that Betty Ford's political activity on behalf of the ERA was "demeaning to the stature of the First Lady." As cited in Rohrer, 1987.

(25.) Weidenfeld, 1979, p. 172.

(26.) Mary Louis Oates, "The Political Wife--An Enduring Breed," Los Angeles Times (June 24, 1993).

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A80605885