In the News
Happy Birthday, Betty Ford
Let’s salute a remarkable Betty, First Lady Betty Ford
Betty Ford, a First Lady known for honesty and outspokenness about important issues that affect women, celebrates her 91st birthday, on April 8.
In 1974–a time when few women talked about breast cancer–Mrs. Ford, then in the White House, spoke publicly about the mastectomy she underwent.
Five years later, she was just as forthcoming about another rarely discussed topic, her dependence on alcohol and prescription medicine and the treatment she needed to handle her addiction.
Recently I spoke with Susan Ford Bales, Mrs. Ford’s daughter, about how much her mother had accomplished by choosing to be so public about these once-taboo subjects.
“I don’t think Mother realized the impact being public about her breast cancer would have,” she said. “But my parents had made a commitment that during my father’s administration there would be no lies or cover-ups. They could have said she was going into the hospital because of ‘female problems,’ and the press would have respected that at the time.”
“Remember, this was a time when you didn’t say the word breast at the dining-room table. But Mother wanted to be open and honest. And it did change things,” said Mrs. Bales. “Women came out of the closet about their experiences with breast cancer. Before my mother, there were women who would never tell their friends or their family they had had a mastectomy. She made an enormous difference in that way.”
She continued, “With addiction, I think my mother realized the positive impact she would have. She knew that men were treated far more often than women. She wanted to get help and, by her example, to tell women to get help if they needed it.”
After completing her own treatment for chemical dependency at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Long Beach, Mrs. Ford wanted to establish a treatment center that emphasized the special needs of women. In 1982 she co-founded the nonprofit Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, California
Now the Chairman of the Betty Ford Center, Mrs. Bales said. “At the Center today, fifty percent of the beds are for men and fifty percent for women. It is still more difficult for women to leave their families for thirty, sixty or ninety days of treatment. And men’s insurance will more often pay for treatment. But we keep half the beds for women and sometimes put men on a waiting list to keep a bed available. That is what mother wants.”
While in the White House Mrs. Ford was just as outspoken about other issues of the day. In a famous 60 Minutes interview, she was asked by Morley Safer how she would respond if her daughter was having an affair. She replied she wouldn’t be surprised. She said, “I would think she’s a perfectly normal human being, like all young girls.”
Her daughter recalled, “Now my mother and I define ‘affair’ different ways because we are different generations. To my mother, having an affair meant having premarital sexual relations. To me, having an affair meant having sex with a married man. Safer did not define it. But I wasn’t going to have sex with a married man! By the way, Mother never told me about the interview until it was in the news!”
Much like the Obamas today, the Fords during their White House years were seen as a fairly typical family. Daughter Susan recalls that on the night her father took office after President Nixon’s resignation, “Mother cooked dinner. Dad became President, and my brother Steve and I were running around, probably driving them crazy.”
Betty Ford wrote Michelle Obama when she moved into the White House. “Mother said , ‘I don’t know if she knows what she has gotten into. She is really going to be busy.’ “
While First Lady, Mrs. Ford also publicly disagreed with President Ford on some hot-button political issues. She was pro-choice; her husband was noncommittal. Should Michelle Obama be as outspoken as she was?
“Absolutely! It’s normal. Husbands and wives don’t always agree,” said Mrs. Bales. “And, if it is her opinion, it is her opinion–and everyone is allowed to have an opinion. Of course, the hard part today is the spin the press could put on a disagreement. But my advice would be whether she’s right or wrong, she’s entitled to express her own views.” And, she said, she believes her mother agrees.
Mrs. Bales, who held her senior prom in the White House’s East Room, also has some advice for Sasha and Malia. “My heart goes out to them. I was lucky. I lived in the area and didn’t have to change schools when my father became President. That is always difficult. Amy Carter, Chelsea Clinton and the Obama girls all had to change schools. But I would tell them to have fun. There is Camp David and so many wonderful people to meet and experiences to have. Just have fun!”
Betty Ford, at ninety-one, now has “the normal health problems,” according to her daughter. “But her mind is still sharp,” Mrs. Bales said. “And she still has lots of opinions. She doesn’t go out much; she doesn’t want to go out. She still has her hair and her nails done. She talks to friends and family on the phone. But she has lost her soul mate, and it’s difficult. We are celebrating her birthday at home, just two girls, having dinner together.”