Bye, Bye, Betty

Betty Ford. To most people, the name means rehab, the place where a thousand celebs have retreated to cure their addictions to prescription painkiller (isn’t that always the reason?) and emerged to reboot their careers. The center was noted in every obituary of the former First Lady as her lasting legacy.

I beg to differ. It’s only part of her legacy, just one of the ways the candid Mrs. Ford was a trailblazer. Betty Ford should more fairly be remembered for the way she brushed aside all sorts of taboos, and talked about things like her struggles with alcohol, or her battle with breast cancer soon after her husband entered the White House in 1974. Obituaries for the former First Lady, who died July 8 at the age of 93, did note those events in her life, with an aside about how such things weren’t openly discussed in those days. Today, with every moment of our lives documented via some social media, it’s hard to remember just how deeply frightened people where to talk about such personal issues. But people were. Addictions could not only ruin lives, but seeking treatment was a difficult process, mostly done in secret. The word “cancer” was stage-whispered, because it was akin to pronouncing a death sentence.

Breast cancer is still a devastating diagnosis, to be sure. But the word “mammogram” has become part of the vernacular, thanks in large part to Betty Ford’s forthrightness in urging women to get exams. Better early detection, treatment, and the option of reconstructive surgery allows more women to know their options, face it head on and get on with their lives. How many doctors in the mid-1970s would have encouraged a post-mastectomy patient, like my good friend Amy, to become pregnant with her first child?

In these days when feminism has a negative connotation in the minds of many young women, it’s also hard to recall how significant it was for Betty Ford to lobby hard for the Equal Rights Amendment. That movement that seems an almost laughable remnant of history for anyone under 30, but the need for a Constitutional amendment to guarantee equal rights was a real issue for women entering the work force.  Women’s libbers, as the men of my dad’s generation dismissed them.

Betty Ford became more popular than her husband, by some polls, by speaking out even when it wasn’t politically popular. And in that way, she became the prototype for the modern First Lady, the first to acknowledge her own trials and travails, to openly express her own opinions on major issues like abortion, and be recognized for having a stance of her own, apart from her husband. Her openness during the White House years was a breath of fresh air, another example of how much things had changed since the silent and stoic Pat Nixon boarded that helicopter on the White House lawn to enter her own husband’s self-imposed exile. Betty Ford sat down for a 60 Minutes interview by saying, “You can ask me anything,” and then proceeded to actually answer questions without evasion.

Unlike previous political spouses, Betty Ford was her own person. Again, hard to imagine, but that was a new concept for women at the time she rose to prominence as the accidental First Lady. I can’t say I’ve ever thought much about Betty Ford, since she faded from the pages of my mother’s Ladies’ Home Journal. So it’s kind of surprising to have much of a reaction to news reports of her death. But somehow they seemed to rob her of her full due. Betty Ford was more than just a name on the rehab clinic’s front door.