Betty Ford

Last week Saturday, I read on Yahoo News that former first lady, Betty Ford died on Friday, July 8, at the age of 93.  Current first lady, Michelle Obama and former First Lady Hilary Clinton are to attend the funeral.

Betty Ford was born Elizabeth Ann Bloomer in Chicago, Illinois.  She was the only daughter of William Stephenson Bloomer Sr. , a traveling salesman for Royal Rubber Co., and his wife, Hortense.  Betty had two older brothers.  The family After living in Denver, Colorado for a brief time before they moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan where Betty grew up and graduated from Central High School.

Betty was not your typical teenager.  At the age of 14, she began modeling clothes and teaching children dances such as the foxtrot, waltz, and big apple. She also entertained and worked with children with disabilities at the Mary Free Bed Home for Crippled Children. She studied dance at the Calla Travis Dance Studio, graduating in 1935.

Sadly, she lost her father when she was sixteen years.  He died When Ford was age 16, her father died the day before his 60th birthday of carbon monoxide poisoning in the family’s garage while working under their car even though the garage doors were open.

After she graduated from high school, Betty wanted to continue studying dance in New York City but her mother didn’t support this idea so Betty had to settle for Bennington School of Dance in Bennington, Vermont, for two summers.  When she was accepted as a student by Martha Graham, one of the choregraphers she studied with in Vermont, Betty moved to New York City to live in its Manhattan borough’s Chelsea neighborhood and worked as a fashion model for the John Robert Powers firm in order to finance her dance studies.  She ended up performing with Graham’s troupe at Carnegie Hall.

Betty’s mother strongly opposed her daughter’s career choice and insisted that she returned home but Betty refused.  Eventually they made a compromise.  she would return home for six months, and if she still wanted to return to New York City at the end of the six months, her mother would not protest further.  Betty did not return to New York City because she became so wrapped up in her life in Grand Rapids. 

Growing up I loved dancing and my parents enrolled me into a dance school to help me to overcome my shyness and to do something I enjoyed so much.  I didn’t become a professional dancer but still enjoy dancing, especially with my husband and three year old son.

Betty was married before she met and married Gerald Ford.  In 1942, she married William C. Warren, whom she had known since she was 12.  He was a salesman who worked with his father.  As a result of his job, the couple moved frequently.  They lived for a time in Toledo, Ohio, where she was employed at the department store Lasalle & Koch as a demonstrator, a job that entailed being a model and saleswoman. Then in Fulton, New York, she worked a production line for a frozen-food company in Fulton, New York.  When they moved to Grand Rapids, she returned to Herpolsheimer’s where she used to work but this time as “The” Fashion Coordinator.

Warren was an alcoholic, and in poor health. Just after Betty decided to file for divorce, he went into a coma. She took care of him for another two years as he convalesced, and they were finally divorced on September 22, 1947, on the grounds of “excessive, repeated cruelty”. They didn’t have any children.

A year later Betty married Gerald Ford, who at the time was a lawyer and a World War II veteran at an Episcopal church in Grand Rapids.  It  was during this time that Gerald Ford Gerald Ford campaigning for what would be his first of thirteen terms as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.  The couple’s wedding was delayed until shortly before the elections because, as The New York Times reported, “Jerry was running for Congress and wasn’t sure how voters might feel about his marrying a divorced ex-dancer.”

Well, Jerry and the divorced ex-dancer were married for fifty-eight years until his death.  The couple had three sons and a daughter whom Betty never spanked or hit because she believed that there were better, more constructive ways to discipline and punish children.  Betty watched as her husband rose to become the highest-ranking Republican in the House, then appointed as Vice President to Richard Nixon when Spiro Agnew resigned from that position in 1973.  Ford became president in 1974 when Nixon resigned because of the Watergate scandal.  The Fords were reputed to be The Fords were among the more openly affectionate First Couples in American history. They were not at all shy about their mutual love and equal respect for each other and they had a strong personal and political partnership. 

Betty was an outspoken advocate of women’s rights and was a prominent force in the Women’s Movement of the 1970s.  She supported the proposed Equal Rights Amendment and lobbied state legislatures to ratify the amendment.  She was not afraid to take on the opponents of the amendment.  She was pro-choice.  Time magazine dubbed her the country’s “Fighting First Lady” because of her political activism and named her Woman of the Year in 1975.

On September 28, 1974, weeks after she became First Lady, Betty underwent a mastectomy for breast cancer. Her openness about her illness raised the visibility of a disease that Americans had previously been reluctant to talk about. “When other women have this same operation, it doesn’t make any headlines,” she told Time magazine. “But the fact that I was the wife of the President put it in headlines and brought before the public this particular experience I was going through. It made a lot of women realize that it could happen to them. I’m sure I’ve saved at least one person—maybe more.”

Betty was one of the most candid first ladies in history, commenting on hot issues such as feminism, equal pay, ERA, sex, drugs, abortion, and gun control. She also raised awareness of addiction when she announced her long-running battle with alcoholism in the 1970s.  In 1978, her family staged an intervention, forcing her to confront her alcoholism and an addiction to painkillers which had been prescribed in the early 1960s for a pinched nerve. “I liked alcohol,” she wrote in her 1987 memoir. “It made me feel warm. And I loved pills. They took away my tension and my pain”.   In 1982 after her recovery, she founded the Betty Ford Centre.

Betty continued to lead an active public life after leaving the White House.  She was the 1st Chairman of the Board for the Betty Ford Centre which was passed over to her daughter Susan. in 2005.  Betty continued to be an active leader and activist of the feminist movement after the Ford administration.  She joined First Ladies Lady Bird Johnson and Rosalynn Carter to open and participate in the National Women’s Conference in Houston, Texas, where she endorsed measures in the convention’s National Plan of Action, a report sent to the state legislatures, the U.S. Congress, and the President on how to improve the status of American women.

As a stanch supporter and advocate of the ERA, Ford led marches, parades and rallies for the amendment with other feminists including First Daughter Maureen Reagan and various Hollywood actors. 

In November 18, 1991, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George H.W. Bush and a Congressional Gold Medal in 1999.  On May 8, 2003, Ford received the Woodrow Wilson Award in Los Angeles for her public service from the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution.

In a 1987 interview, Betty mentioned that not only were her mother and Martha Graham her strongest role models and influences but also Eleanor Roosevelt.  What impressed Betty about the former First Lady was her belief that she had the right to express opinions independent of the President and shaping the First Lady role to match her individualism .  Betty found this to be “healthy.”

Today we celebrate this amazing First Lady who believed in equal rights and raising awareness about breast cancer.  She was outspoken and passionate about issues that were important to her.   She was described as “a product and symbol of the cultural and political times—doing the Bump along the corridors of the White House, donning a mood ring, chatting on her CB radio with the handle First Mama—a housewife who argued passionately for equal rights for women, a mother of four who mused about drugs, abortion and premarital sex aloud and without regret.” She will be greatly missed.

It’s always been my feeling that God lends you your children until they’re about eighteen years old. If you haven’t made your points with them by then, it’s too late.

Not my power, but the power of the position, a power which could be used to help.

The search for human freedom can never be complete without freedom for women.

Betty Ford

Sources:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Betty_Ford; http://www.firstladies.org/biographies/firstladies.aspx?biography=39

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