Betty Ford (1918-2011) was an American first lady (1974-77) and the wife of Gerald Ford, the 38th president of the United States. Ford realized the power of her position as first lady early on, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after her husband took office. Her public disclosure of a previously taboo subject encouraged thousands of women to seek medical treatment. Ford continued to speak openly on a number of social and political issues, for which she received both criticism and praise. In 1982, after overcoming her own dependence on alcohol and prescription pills, she founded the Betty Ford Center, a substance abuse and addiction treatment facility.

Early Life

Elizabeth “Betty” Anne Bloomer was the third child, and only daughter, of William Bloomer, Sr. and Hortense Neahr. Elizabeth’s father worked for the Royal Rubber Company in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Her mother was related to a wealthy Grand Rapids furniture manufacturing family.

Did you know? Politics played a key role in Gerald and Betty Ford's marriage from the start. Running in his first campaign for the U.S. Congress, Ford left the couple's rehearsal dinner early to deliver a campaign speech and arrived late to the wedding the following day after attending a rally with his supporters.

Betty’s mother thought social graces were important, so in 1926 eight-year-old Betty enrolled at Calla Travis Dance Studio in Grand Rapids, where she studied ballet, tap and modern movement. Dance became a passion, and soon Betty decided to pursue it as a career. At 14, she taught younger children dances such as the foxtrot, waltz and “The Big Apple.” While still in high school, she opened her own dance school teaching children and adults.

When Betty was 16, her father was asphyxiated by carbon monoxide poisoning while working on the family car in a closed garage. It was never confirmed whether his death was accidental or a suicide. With the main bread-winner gone, Betty’s mother supported the family by working as a real-estate agent. Her strength and independence in the face of tragedy greatly influenced Betty, shaping her views on equal pay and equality for women.

After graduating from high school, Bettyspent two summers at the Bennington School of Dance in Vermont studying under legendary choreographer and dancer Martha Graham. To pay for her lessons, she worked during the year as a model at a Grand Rapids department store. In 1940, Betty was accepted to study and work with Martha Graham’s auxiliary troupe in New York City. She made numerous appearances as a dancer, including a performance at Carnegie Hall.

Work and First Marriage

Hortense Bloomer never completely accepted her daughter’s career choice and urged Betty to come home. Finally, after realizing that she would probably not be a premier dancer, Betty returned to Grand Rapids in 1941 to work full-time at Herpolscheimer’s department store. After a series of promotions, she became a fashion coordinator for the store. She continued her strong interest in dance, teaching at Travis Dance Studio in Grand Rapids and organizing her own dance troupe. She also offered weekly dance classes to African-American children, and taught ballroom dancing to children with sight and hearing disabilities.

In 1942, Betty Bloomer met and married William C. Warren, a furniture salesman whom she had known since she was 12. Warren had a series of jobs in different cities, often as a traveling salesman, and Betty sometimes worked as a department store saleswoman and model in cities where they lived. After three years, however, Betty realized the marriage wasn’t going to work. She wanted a home, family, and children and grew tired of the couple’s itinerant lifestyle. But before she could discuss a divorce, Warren fell ill with acute diabetes. While he recovered over the next two years, Betty worked to support them both. This experience left her with a strong impression of the inequalities in compensation between genders for doing the same job. After Warren recovered, the couple ended their marriage.

Marriage to Gerald Ford

In August of 1947, Betty Warren met 34-year-old attorney Gerald Ford, a U.S. Navy lieutenant. Ford had returned from duty to resume his law practice, and to run for U.S. Congress. The couple dated for a year before Ford proposed in February of 1948, and the couple married two weeks before the November election. He picked this date because he was concerned the voters in his conservative district might have second thoughts about him marrying a divorced ex-dancer. During the wedding rehearsal dinner, Gerald had to leave early in order to make a campaign speech.The day after their wedding, the Fords attended a political rally, followed by a University of Michigan football game, and a speech by New York governor Thomas Dewey. Gerald won the election three weeks later, ushering Betty into the world of politics.

In December 1948, the Fords moved to a Virginia suburb outside of Washington, D.C. Betty quickly immersed herself in the political process. She got to know the names and positions of powerful legislative figures, served as her husband’s unofficial adviser, and networked with other Congressmen’s spouses. As Ford built his Congressional career, winning re-election 13 times and rising to the position of House Minority Leader, Betty assumed the traditional responsibilities of a father as well as a mother to their four children. She also became involved with charity organizations and volunteer work.

First Lady

On December 6, 1973, Ford was appointed Vice President under Richard Nixon, after Vice President Spiro Angew resigned. Then, on August 9, 1974, in an unprecedented move, Richard Nixon resigned from office under pressure from the Watergate scandal. Under United States law, Gerald Ford became the 38th President of the United States. Betty Ford was officially the First Lady.

In short order, it became apparent that the new First Lady was going to make an impact.

Betty became known for dancing to disco music at informal White House events, and was especially good at the dance move, “The Bump.” She chatted on her CB radio under the call name “First Mama.” But Betty Ford could also be very serious on subjects such as equal rights for women, abortion and divorce. At times, her outspokenness raised disapproval from the more conservative elements of the Republican Party. After a 60 Minutes appearance where she openly discussed how she would counsel her children if they were involved in pre-marital sex and recreational drugs, some conservatives called her “No Lady” and demanded her resignation. But the nation as a whole found her openness appealing, and her approval rating reached 75 percent.

Political Will

Weeks after Betty Ford became First Lady, she was diagnosed with malignant breast cancer during a routine exam. Ford underwent a mastectomy, and her openness about her illness raised visibility for a disease that Americans had previously been reluctant to discuss. During her convalescence, she realized the influence and power being a First Lady had on influencing policy and creating change. She supported the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment), and lobbied hard for its passage. She also became a strong advocate for a women’s right to free choice in many decisions that affected their lives. As a result of her efforts, Time magazine named her woman of the year in 1975.

In 1976, Betty Ford showed her innate political skills when her husband ran for president against Democratic challenger and former Georgia governor, Jimmy Carter. The First Lady played a highly visible role during the campaign. She not only advocated for her husband, but also stood as a symbol of a moderate Republican as the conservative Republican wing of the party began to emerge. Betty taped radio ads, spoke at rallies, and campaigned hard, despite the tremendous strain on her health. Though most of her activities were spontaneous, she was often confined to stops in moderate-to-liberal states by the campaign staff, who worried at times that Betty Ford was appearing more liberal than Rosalynn Carter, the Democratic candidate’s wife. She remained very popular with the public, however, and many supporters for President Ford wore buttons saying “Vote for Betty’s Husband.” When Gerald Ford lost to Jimmy Carter in the election, it was Betty Ford who delivered his concession speech, due to her husband’s bout with laryngitis in the last days of the campaign.

Struggle with Addiction

Since the early 1960s, Betty Ford had been taking opioid analgesics for pain from a pinched nerve. Her dependency on these drugs had dissipated during her time in the White House, but after leaving Washington, D.C., her drinking of alcohol increased—as did her use of prescription drugs. In 1978, the Ford family staged an intervention, and forced Betty to confront her addition to alcohol and pain pills. After her initial anger over the intrusion in her life, Betty remained home for a week, and underwent a monitored detoxification. She then entered Long Beach Naval Hospital for drug and alcohol rehabilitation. There, the former First Lady shared a room with other women, cleaned restrooms, and participated in emotional therapy sessions. In keeping with her sense of authenticity, Betty fully disclosed her addictions and resulting treatment to the public shortly after her release from the hospital.

The experience in drug rehab had a profound effect on Betty. She realized during her convalescence that, as a former First Lady, she had the power to create change and affect behavior. She also realized there was no recovery facility specifically established to help women with the unique problems associated with drug and alcohol abuse. In 1982, after her full recovery, Betty helped establish the Betty Ford Center, dedicated to helping all people, but especially women, with chemical dependency. Through her work at the Betty Ford Center, Betty began to understand the connection between drug addiction and those suffering from HIV/AIDS. She soon began to voice her support for gay and lesbian rights in the workplace, and spoke out in support of same-sex marriage.

Final Years

In 1987, Betty Ford published a book about her treatment entitled Betty: A Glad Awakening. In 2003, Ford produced another book, Healing and Hope: Six Women from the Betty Ford Center Share Their Powerful Journeys of Addiction and Recovery. In 1991, she earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George H.W. Bush; then received the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999; and was honored with the Woodrow Wilson Award for public service.

Gerald Ford, Betty’s husband of 58 years, died on December 26, 2006, at the age of 93. The couple had four children together: Michael, John, Steven, and Susan. After her husband’s death, Betty refrained from any public appearances, but remained active as chair-emeritus of the Betty Ford Center.

On July 8, 2011, Ford died of natural causes at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, California. After her death, her casket was flown to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where it lay in the Gerald Ford Museum over the night of July 13, 2011. She was buried next to her husband during a funeral service on July 14, 2011, on what would have been her husband’s 98th birthday.

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