First Lady Betty Ford Remembered For Her Candor

During the 1976 campaign, Betty Ford was more popular than her husband, President Gerald Ford. Ford, who died Friday, had been a supporter of feminist causes, and her support for abortion rights riled many conservatives during the campaign of her husband, who died in 2007. NPR's Ina Jaffe reports

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SCOTT SIMON, host: Betty Ford has died at the age of 93. During her life, Mrs. Ford was known for her openness about her own personal struggles, and that candor helped change the way Americans think and talk about breast cancer, women's rights and substance abuse. NPR's Ina Jaffe reports.

INA JAFFE: Before she became a first lady and advocate for women's rights and an inspiration to people struggling with addiction, Betty Ford was a dancer. The former Elizabeth Ann Bloomer studied and taught dance in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she grew up. She pursued her passion in New York City, where she trained with the legendary Martha Graham, but soon returned home at the bidding of her mother.

Following a brief first marriage, she met a young lawyer named Gerald Ford. They married in October of 1948. The next month, he was elected to Congress. A quarter-century later, Gerald Ford became vice president and later replaced the disgraced Richard Nixon as president. And in a 1987 interview, Betty Ford told NPR that the move to the White House made her feel empowered, too.

BETTY FORD: I suddenly was somebody. I wasn't just the suburban housewife who was taking care of the children and being the backup to this man who was out front.

JAFFE: What she did and thought and said became part of the national dialogue, and Betty Ford didn't hold much back. Just weeks after moving into the White House, she announced she'd been diagnosed with breast cancer and undergone a mastectomy. Such things weren't discussed publicly then.

Her candor was revolutionary for such a prominent figure. But she believed that in the post-Watergate era, Americans wanted more openness and honesty in Washington. And as she said in a 1975 interview on CBS "60 Minutes," she also wanted to raise awareness of breast cancer.

FORD: I thought, there are women all over the country like me. And if I don't make this public, then their lives will be gone or in jeopardy. And I think it did a great deal for women a far as the cancer problem is concerned.

JAFFE: Reportedly, thousands of women did get tested as a result of Betty Ford's frankness. As first lady, she was also outspoken about her support for abortion rights. And during and after her time in the White House, she campaigned for the ill-fated Equal Rights Amendment.

Here, she's at a 1981 rally in Washington, D.C.

FORD: We are at the point of demanding...

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

FORD: recognition. Demanding recognition of our the right to equality. I intend to be on the front lines until the success is ours.

JAFFE: Betty Ford's candor never seemed to hurt her. A 1976 poll showed she was more popular than Gerald Ford. There were buttons during the campaign that said: Betty's Husband for President. But decades of holding down the home front while her husband pursued his career, as well as coping with a painful pinched nerve in her neck, took a toll on Betty Ford.

In a 2002 NPR interview, she said that after leaving the White House she realized - or rather, her family confronted her and told her - that she had a problem with alcohol and pills.

FORD: I was very upset, of course. I was very hurt. I was very cross about it because I felt, here I've spent my whole married life looking after my children and my husband. And how can they say these things, and how can they confront me this way?

JAFFE: In that interview, Betty and Gerald Ford described how her struggle and recovery led to the founding of the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, California, near Palm Springs. It became as famous as some of the celebrities who sought treatment there, though they've made up only a tiny percentage of the center's tens of thousands of patients.

At first, Betty Ford didn't want the center named after her. But Gerald Ford said, lucky thing it was.

President GERALD FORD: It had a certain attractiveness to people who needed help, that they could go to a place where a former first lady was chairman.

FORD: It was very helpful for women too because women had really, in many ways, been underserved. And as my name was on there, it was a safe place for women to come and be treated.

JAFFE: In the first of her two autobiographies, Betty Ford wrote: I was an ordinary woman who was called on stage at an extraordinary time. But through an accident of history, I had become interesting to people.

She was more than merely interesting, however. Betty Ford made a genuine impact on the nation just by being herself and speaking her mind.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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