Betty Ford, who had won the hearts and minds of her fellow Americans and earned a special place in history for her strong opinions, brutal honesty and advocacy regarding abortion rights, sex, gay rights, marijuana and the Equal Rights Amendment, passed away Friday at the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif., according to family spokesperson Barbara Lewandrowski. The cause of death was not given.
In the time period after the Watergate scandal, the former First Lady was a critical influence in American society with her unabashed candor and forthright discussion of her personal battles with breast cancer, prescription drug addiction and alcoholism.
In a statement released Friday evening, President Barack Obama said:
“Throughout her long and active life, Elizabeth Anne Ford distinguished herself through her courage and compassion. As our nation’s First Lady, she was a powerful advocate for women’s health and women’s rights. After leaving the White House, Mrs. Ford helped reduce the social stigma surrounding addiction and inspired thousands to seek much-needed treatment. While her death is a cause for sadness, we know that organizations such as the Betty Ford Center will honor her legacy by giving countless Americans a new lease on life.”
In 25 years of political life, Betty Bloomer Ford did not expect to become First Lady. As wife of Representative Gerald R. Ford, she looked forward to his retirement and more time together. In late 1973 his selection as Vice President was a surprise to her. She was just becoming accustomed to their new roles when he became President upon Mr. Nixon’s resignation in August 1974.
Born Elizabeth Anne Bloomer in Chicago, she grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and graduated from high school there. She studied modern dance at Bennington College in Vermont, decided to make it a career, and became a member of Martha Graham’s noted concert group in New York City, supporting herself as a fashion model for the John Robert Powers firm.
Close ties with her family and her home town took her back to Grand Rapids, where she became fashion coordinator for a department store. She also organized her own dance group and taught dance to handicapped children.
Her first marriage, at age 24, ended in divorce five years later on the grounds of incompatibility. Not long afterward she began dating Jerry Ford, football hero, graduate of the University of Michigan and Yale Law School, and soon a candidate for Congress. They were married during the 1948 campaign; he won his election; and the Fords lived in the Washington area for nearly three decades thereafter.
Their four children — Michael, Jack, Steven, and Susan — were born in the next ten years.
As her husband’s political career became more demanding, Betty Ford found herself shouldering many of the family responsibilities. She supervised the home, did the cooking, undertook volunteer work, and took part in the activities of “House wives” and “Senate wives” for Congressional and Republican clubs. In addition, she was an effective campaigner for her husband.
Betty Ford faced her new life as First Lady with dignity and serenity. She accepted it as a challenge.
“I like challenges very much,” she said. She had the self-confidence to express herself with humor and forthrightness whether speaking to friends or to the public.
Forced to undergo radical surgery for breast cancer in 1974, she reassured many troubled women by discussing her ordeal openly. She explained that “maybe if I as First Lady could talk about it candidly and without embarrassment, many other people would be able to as well.” As soon as possible, she resumed her duties as hostess at the Executive Mansion and her role as a public-spirited citizen.
She did not hesitate to state her views on controversial issues such as the Equal Rights Amendment, which she strongly supported.
From their home in California, she was equally frank about her successful battle against dependency on drugs and alcohol. She helped establish the Betty Ford Center for treatment of this problem at the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage.
She has described the role of First Lady as “much more than a 24-hour job than anyone would guess” and says of her predecessors: “Now that I realize what they’ve had to put up with, I have new respect and admiration for every one of them.”
Her taboo-busting honesty — about abortion, sex, gay rights, marijuana and the Equal Rights Amendment — was a bracing antidote to the secrecy and deceptions of the Watergate era.
Concurrent with the new Betty Ford Center’s first years in the mid-1980’s, the former First Lady began to see an increase in the amount of people struggling with drug addiction who were also diagnosed as carrying the HIV virus. It led her to become one of the first voices within the Republican Party to articulate concern and passion for those with it and the then-inevitable disability of AIDS.
Along these lines, she also voiced her support for gay and lesbian rights in the workplace and later, with the former President, in favor of same-gender marriage.
“God put us all here for His own purposes; it’s not my business to try and second-guess Him,” she wrote several years earlier. “I think Anita Bryant’s taking action against the gay population was ill-considered. I don’t believe people should lose their jobs because of their sexual preferences…”
For her support of those with AIDS, she would be honored with the first Los Angeles AIDS Project Los Angeles’s Commitment to Life Award in 1985.
She also campaigned enthusiastically for feminist causes that she believed in — the Equal Rights Amendment, for example, and the nomination of a woman to the Supreme Court. Her vigorous support of the women’s movement inspired leading feminist Gloria Steinem to remark that she “felt better knowing that Betty Ford was sleeping with the president.”
Mrs.Ford is survived by her sons Michael Ford, John “Jack” Ford and Steven Ford; daughter Susan Ford Bales; grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
The former first lady will be buried next to her husband at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library in Grand Rapids, Michigan.