Copyright ©2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Betty Ford, wife of the late President Gerald Ford, has died. She was 93. Her cause of death has not yet been announced.

During her life, Betty Ford helped change the way Americans think and talk about women's rights, breast cancer and substance abuse.

NPR's Ina Jaffe has this remembrance.

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 Anne 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. 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.

(Soundbite of archived interview)

Ms. 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 had 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.

(Soundbite of archived interview)

Ms. 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. They're in jeopardy. And I think it did a great deal for women as far as the cancer problem is concerned.

JAFFE: Reportedly, thousands of women did get tested as a result of Betty Ford's frankness. Betty Ford's candor never seemed to hurt her: A 1976 poll showed she was more popular than Gerald Ford. 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.

(Soundbite of archived interview)

Ms. FORD: I was very upset, of course. I was very hurt because I felt here I'd 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.

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.

NORRIS: Former first lady Betty Ford has died. She was 93.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.