Breast Cancer, Drugs, and Betty Ford

Most American First Ladies bow to unrelenting political and social pressure to be seen -preferably smiling and wearing an attractive-yet-affordable outfit by an American designer - but never heard. Controversy and opinions are definitely out. Witness beloved First Ladies Barbara and Laura Bush. Their primary cause was literacy - a noble calling, but hardly pot-stirring in a country with a 99% literacy rate.


Elizabeth Ann Bloomer, better known as Betty Ford, started out with the same conflict-avoidant approach to political wifedom. It didn’t help that she did not want to be a political wife. She strongly preferred living a quiet life in Grand Rapids to Washington’s spotlight.


However, Betty Ford was a plain-spoken, frank Midwestern gal. Once her husband Gerald Ford became an elected official, she believed “the public had a right to know where I stood,” she explained in her 1978 autobiography, The Times of My Life. Ford valued candor. Completely unexpectedly, her open talk about everyday women’s issues ended up improving women’s lives far more than her husband’s presidential actions.


Betty Ford died last Friday at age 93. She was First Lady from August 9, 1974 -- the day Richard Nixon resigned -- until 30 months later when Jimmy Carter was inaugurated president. She was a stay-at-home wife and mother of four who never attended college. Although hardly a trailblazer, her honest approach to life’s realities compelled her to campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment, to openly accept premarital sex among her daughter’s generation, to advocate for the country’s dire need for safe, legal abortion, to admit she was sufficiently resentful of her husband’s commitment to work that she sough psychiatric counsel, and to vote Democratic when she felt like it (her husband was a Republican).


White House advisors complained that Betty Ford damaged her husband’s chance to win the 1976 presidential election. “If Jerry Ford can’t control his own wife, how can he run the country?” some said. However, Betty Ford’s honesty on women’s issues of the day jacked her approval rating to 75% and prompted campaign buttons that read “Elect Betty’s Husband for President!” Jimmy Carter won the race by two percentage points. Ford may have lost, but the women of America won in the long run.


Most significantly, Betty Ford was honest with the public about her battles with two stigmatizing afflictions women were never supposed to speak about. The first was breast cancer. This was back in the day, long before pink ribbons and jogging races symbolized anything. Cancer in your breast - and surgery on or removal of a breast - were as unspeakable as Voldemort. Women were considered damaged goods after breast cancer, sexually unappetizing and less valuable as women. No wonder we didn’t want to fess up if we had the big C. Many women preferred to let cancer spread rather than have a mastectomy that might save their life. Betty Ford’s open admission of her own cancer, only weeks into her husband’s presidential term, and his continued adoration of her, vanquished that degree of shame for good.