With news today of former First Lady Betty Ford’s death at age 93, it is easy to simply recall her as the leader of the national movement for substance abuse recovery because of the famous southern California treatment center which bears her name. In fact, that was but one in a number of issues on behalf of which Mrs. Ford became a world-recognized trailblazer by simply being herself – which is to say, speaking out honestly and rationally.
Although she was only in the White House from August 1974 to January of 1977, she made extraordinary good use of her time in that most visible of symbolic roles.
As First Lady, she broke the national taboo on discussing breast cancer, the need to seek professional services of a therapist for emotional issues, support of a woman’s right to decisions about her own body including support of the Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade decision, and even an effort to mainstream the modern dance movement into the traditional forms.
At the core of her conscience was an ironclad belief in the equality of women and men. Like her role in the public issues of breast cancer, the value of therapy and substance abuse recovery, the issue of women’s right to full legal equality emerged from her own personal life. When her first husband had fallen ill with what threatened to be a lifelong illness, she realized that her ability to financially support him was compromised by the lack of equal pay for equal work among the genders. Thus, when she became First Lady she quickly rose as the national leader of the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In that role, she delivered the opening speech at the October 25, 1975 Conference on Women in Cleveland.
In this excerpt of that now largely-forgotten speech, Mrs. Ford delivered her crisp yet eloquent case for equal rights. As an example of the increasingly political and social importance of First Ladies to the nation, it ranks with two other revolutionary speeches – those of Eleanor Roosevelt at the United Nations in outlining the Declaration of Human Rights, a document she helped draft, and of Hillary Clinton in Beijing at the U.N. Conference on Women.
In many respects, this speech is still ahead of its time. It isn’t hard to imagine how the media and activists of all political stripes might respond if an incumbent First Lady in the 2010s were to say the words that Mrs. Ford did over a quarter of a century ago.
A longer article drawn from my personal experiences and times with Mrs. Ford will be posted on www.salon.com and also on this site.