Notable League Member: Betty Ford

Connie Wilson

Sat May 01 2021 07:00:00 GMT+0000 (Coordinated Universal Time)

As First Lady from 1974 to 1977, Betty Ford faithfully sent her membership dues to her hometown League in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She also continued her activism for women’s rights, even when her opinions clashed with those of her husband’s and the Republican party’s.

As First Lady from 1974 to 1977, Betty Ford faithfully sent her membership dues to her hometown League in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She also continued her activism for women’s rights, even when her opinions clashed with those of her husband’s and the Republican party’s.

Betty was an ardent supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and once famously asked: “Why should my husband’s job or yours prevent us from being ourselves?” In 1975, she made a passionate speech for ratification of the ERA, saying it “will help knock down those restrictions that have locked women into old stereotypes of behavior and opportunity . . . Let us work to end the laws and remove the labels that limit the imagination and the options of men and women alike.”

Admired by members of both political parties, in 1975 Betty was featured on the cover of Time magazine as one of 12 “Women of the Year.” At the same time, critics of this outspoken feminist (led by right-wing Republican women) were organizing pickets against her at the White House gates, a first in the history of women who had served as a president’s wife.

Betty also brought her disarming candor to bear on women’s health issues. Only two months after her husband became president, she underwent treatment for breast cancer, including a mastectomy. Speaking publicly about her experience, Betty raised awareness about a subject that had previously been considered taboo, prompting a significant nationwide increase in the number of women seeking mammograms.

After leaving the White House, Betty once again shared a personal crisis for the public good when she revealed that she was battling an addiction to prescription drugs and alcohol. She quickly became a leading advocate for the education and treatment of this health problem and co-founded the Betty Ford Center in California in 1982. This facility is widely regarded as one of the outstanding treatment centers in the nation for those suffering from substance abuse.

In 1991, President George H. Bush presented Betty Ford with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of her lifetime commitment to public service. She was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President Bill Clinton in 1999 and was also the recipient of the Smithsonian’s 2003 Woodrow Wilson Award.

Connie Wolfman is a member of the League's Communications Committee.