Adventures in Feministory: Betty Ford

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Former First Lady Betty Ford passed away on Friday. She was 93 years old—the same age her late husband was when he passed five years ago. The mega media outlets are doing a decent albeit routine job in acknowledging Betty Ford’s contributions to women’s issues, health & social issues, and addiction issues, reminding the public that Betty’s candidness about such issues was her greatest contribution to the American public.

Betty Ford, White House Treaty Room, 1976 (Courtesy University of Texas)

But, I’d like to honor her by writing about her interest in the arts, especially dance. I’d like to write about what she was most passionate about growing up and what she didn’t get to fully realize, rushing off into a life of politics with Gerald Ford to address and later pursue issues larger than herself. Granted, I haven’t read either of her books—Betty: A Glad Awakening and Healing (1987) and Hope: Six Women from the Betty Ford Center Share Their Powerful Journeys of Addiction and Recovery (2003)—nor do I remember the Fords’ years in the White House (I was a Carter baby). But I know sacrifice, and as a casual observer, I can’t help but wonder if the late Betty Ford was so outspoken on behalf of women’s issues because she sacrificed her dream of dance when she married into politics. Ironic? Perhaps. Assuming too much from the limited reading I’ve done in the last 48 hours? Possibly. Though I did find, in my searching & reading, that Amy Davidson, senior editor at The New Yorker wrote about Betty and her love of dance in her blog Saturday:

[Betty Ford] never seems to have entirely lost the self-aware, if not controlled, heedlessness that is part of dance, or the joy.

This lead me to her obituary in The Times, that noted “dance was always a major interest, and Mrs. Ford said many times that she was disappointed that she had never been quite good enough to be a first-rate dancer.” Later in the obituary, she’s noted as having said:

I think a lot of women go through this… their husbands have fascinating jobs, their children start to turn into independent people and the women begin to feel useless, empty.

Was this emptiness from not pursuing her passion a catalyst for her stance and outspokenness of women, and later, marginalized group’s issues? I can’t say for sure. But, I do know that her passion moved her in other ways, affecting change in the status quo.

Early Years

Betty had her heart set on NYC after graduation to pursue a career in dance, according to Her mother initially said no, but a couple of years later, Betty landed in NYC, studying under modern dance extraordinaire Martha Graham.

Betty Ford, on left performing, "Scenes from Scaramouche," 1936 (Courtesy Gerald R. Ford Library)

In 1938 she danced at Carnegie Hall. Her young adult years as a dancer influenced her push and support for the arts during her time as First Lady in the mid 70s. Betty Ford had this to say in a 1992 interview for The Desert Sun daily about persuading her husband to officially recognize the arts, dance in particular:

It was my way of trying to tell the public how important I thought dance was as one our major art forms [so] President Ford presented [Martha Graham] with a Medal of Freedom at a large dinner and performance, like a state dinner, only there was not a head of state there. It was all in Martha’s honor.

But, her dream of dance was cut short when she returned home to Grand Rapids to appease her overbearing mother. And though she primarily worked at a local department store, she went back to teaching dance to children of all backgrounds. She married a childhood friend despite her mother’s initial disapproval. The marriage ended five years later in 1947. It was also during this time that Betty experienced—like her mother—the gross labor and pay inequities women encountered during this time.

She met and married Gerald Ford soon after in 1948, exchanging her passion for dance for a life in the political spotlight. According to, to quell any talk from the political arena of his marrying a woman with a failed marriage who used to dance for living, Gerald wanted to marry before the November ‘48 election. Hmm…?

Middle Years

From ‘50 to ‘57 the Fords had four children. After subsequent re-elections to Congress, Gerald moved on up to become House Minority Leader in ‘65. It was also during this time that Betty experienced what would become a series of mounting health issues. Is it any coincidence that with every step her husband took up the political ladder, Betty faced another hurdle? According to the National First Ladies’ Library website, she began taking prescription medication for neck and arthritis pain. It’d be another fifteen years before Betty’s dependency on these pain meds, and later alcohol, would wreak havoc on her and her family’s life.

By the time her husband became president, Betty was diagnosed with breast cancer. But, rather than shy away from talking about the cancer and keep her mastectomy a secret, she spoke openly about it and the procedure, being one of the first public figures to address a major women’s health issue that had been a taboo subject in years prior. The First Lady helped to make it okay for women to openly acknowledge breast cancer.  

After her recovery, she continued speaking out on women’s issues, namely on a women’s right to an abortion (read Carol Joffe’s, University of California professor, post about Betty Ford’s support of Roe in Roe v Wade), the Equal Rights Amendment (read Eleanor Smeal’s, publisher of Ms., “Betty Ford, champion of women’s rights,” article highlighting Betty’s involvement in the ERA Countdown Campaign), and a women’s right to serve on the US Supreme Court, something she tried to persuade her husband to do—though it didn’t happen until Reagan appointed Sandra Day O’Connor first woman justice in ‘81. (Geez! A Republican First Lady going against the conservative grain would be unheard of in today’s ill-tempered us-versus-them political climate… those were the good ole days, eh?)

When she did get the chance to strut her stuff, she didn’t disappoint. “Presidential Pop” blogger and author, Carl Anthony dedicates a post to the First Ladies of dance, ending with Betty’s White House dance highlights. During a state visit to China, Betty delighted by dancing with students at a local dance, she did the disco “Bump” with entertainer Tony Orlando at the ‘76 Republican National Convention, and danced with Fred Astaire. She even danced atop the Cabinet Room table before moving out of the White House.

Betty Ford dancing with comedian Marty Allen, 1976 (Courtesy University of Texas)

Later Years

After the move, however, Betty Ford continued to self-medicate and drink more heavily. It wasn’t until after her detoxification and recovery that Betty publicly admitted to her pain medication and alcohol addictions. From 1982 onward, Betty devoted her time to the addiction hospital she co-founded, the Betty Ford Center, and continued speaking out on public issues concerning marginalized groups, including the right of gays to serve in the military and same-sex marriage.

And though she never materialized into the performance dancer she yearned to be as a young woman, she went through some tough shit, talked about it and other pressing issues on her own terms, and moved thousands of people to do the same. This was her greatest number and one that has yet to be replicated.

Betty Ford talking at the '74 Candidate's Luncheon, Republican Women Power of Illinois, 1974 (Courtesy Gerald R. Ford Library)

Previously: Billie Jean King and Valentina Tereshkova

by Nicole Morales
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2 Comments Have Been Posted

Betty Ford & Republicans today

Betty Ford would've been labeled a "Baby Killer" by the Republican Party of 2011.


I never knew ANY of those things about Betty Ford! (Only that her name was attached to the addiction recovery programs). Thanks so much, she seems rad.

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