Betty Ford, Dead at 93

A former FIrst Lady known for spunk, sass and candor

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Betty Ford passed away late Friday surrounded by her children. She was 93. She will be remembered for her forthright manner and a mutual affection she and the American public enjoyed throughout her colorful life. President Obama remembered her as “a powerful advocate for women’s health and women’s rights” who “helped reduce the social stigma surrounding addiction and inspired thousands to seek much-needed treatment.”

The dancer from Grand Rapids, Mich., became First Lady when Richard Nixon resigned as President in August of 1974 and her husband Gerald, former House Minority Leader who had stepped in to replace Spiro Agnew as the Vice President just a year earlier, was jolted into the Presidency in a storm of Watergate scandal. Born in 1918 to middle class parents, Ford moved to Greenwich Village in the late 1930’s to pursue dance instead of going to college. After returning to Michigan in her mid-twenties she eventually met and married Gerald Ford, who won his first Congressional race shortly thereafter.

When the Fords moved into the White House Betty abandoned the stiff atmosphere imposed by the Nixons and encouraged the staff, much to their delight, to interact with the new First Family. In October of 1974, just months after stepping into the public eye, Ford underwent a mastectomy which she publicly acknowledged, endearing her to the nation. Enid Nemy in The New York Times writes:
Within days, 10,000 letters, more than 500 telephone calls, more than 200 telegrams and scores of floral arrangements poured into the White House and into her suite at Bethesda Naval Hospital. In the months that followed, tens of thousands of American women, inspired by Mrs. Ford’s forthrightness and courage in facing her illness, crowded into doctors’ offices and clinics for breast-cancer examinations.
Despite her spunk and social agility what Ford perceived as the social stigma of never attending college and the difficulty in having a busy, powerful husband eventually dogged at her. “From the outside, our life looked like a Norman Rockwell illustration,” she said at one point as Ford herself began to suffer from a lack of self-worth and an increasing dependency on pain medication and alcohol. In 1978 at the urging of her family she first confronted her addictions and in 1982 she opened the Betty Ford Center to help others who suffered from similar problems. In addition to her advocacy work Ford was a staunch supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion rights, and women’s rights. In 1991 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and in 1999 the Congressional Gold Medal.

She will be buried with her husband Geralad, who passed away in 2006 also at age 93, on the grounds of his Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.