Betty Ford Biography

Elizabeth Anne Ford, commonly known as Betty Ford, was a prominent figure in American politics as the wife of the 38th U.S. president, Gerald Ford. Serving as the First Lady from 1974 to 1977, she was known for her active involvement in various social causes and her fearless advocacy for women’s rights. Despite facing opposition from conservative Republicans, Betty remained steadfast in her pursuits, emerging as a role model for politically active presidential spouses. Her personal struggles with breast cancer, alcoholism, and substance abuse further fueled her dedication to raising awareness on these issues. Betty’s contributions to society extended beyond her time in the White House, as she co-founded the renowned Betty Ford Center, a residential treatment center for substance dependence. Recognized for her exceptional contributions, she was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal, alongside her husband. Betty Ford’s legacy as one of the most outspoken and influential first ladies in history continues to inspire generations.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: Elizabeth Anne Bloomer, Elizabeth Anne Ford, Betty Bloomer
  • Died At Age: 93
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: Gerald Ford (m. 1948), William C. Warren (m. 1942–1947)
    • Father: William Stephenson Bloomer, Sr.
    • Mother: Hortense Bloomer
    • Siblings: Robert Bloomer, William Bloomer Jr.
    • Children: John Gardner Ford, Michael Gerald Ford, Steven Ford, Susan Ford
  • Born Country: United States
  • Feminists
  • Philanthropists
  • Died on: July 8, 2011
  • Place of Death: Eisenhower Health, Rancho Mirage, California, United States
  • City: Chicago, Illinois
  • Cause of Death: Natural Cause
  • U.S. State: Illinois
  • More Facts:
    • Education: Bennington College, Innovation Central High School

Childhood & Early Life

Born Elizabeth Anne Bloomer on April 8, 1918, in Chicago, Illinois, US, she was the third child and the only daughter of William Stephenson Bloomer, Sr. and Hortense. Her father worked as a traveling salesman with the ‘Royal Rubber Co.’ She grew up with her older brothers, Robert and William Jr. As a child, Elizabeth was called Betty.

She lived with her family in Denver, Colorado, for a while before relocating to Grand Rapids, Michigan. There, she graduated from the ‘Central High School.’ Following the Wall Street Crash in 1929, at age 11, she started earning by teaching popular dances to children and modeling. She remained associated with the ‘Mary Free Bed Home for Crippled Children.’ In 1935, she graduated from the ‘Calla Travis Dance Studio.’ She lost her father at age 16.

After her mother objected to her dance lessons in New York City in 1936, Elizabeth enrolled at the ‘Bennington School of Dance’ in Bennington, Vermont, and attended it for two summers. There, she came under the tutelage of director Martha Hill and choreographers Hanya Holm and Martha Graham. After the latter accepted Elizabeth as a student, she relocated to Chelsea in New York City. There, she worked as a model with the firm of John Robert Powers, to bear the costs of her dance studies. She performed with the ‘Martha Graham Dance Company’ at New York City’s ‘Carnegie Hall.’

She then returned home on her mother’s insistence and lived with her mother and the latter’s new husband, Arthur Meigs Goodwin. Elizabeth then started working with a local department store named ‘Herpolsheimer’s,’ as an assistant to the fashion coordinator. She also formed her own dance group and taught the art at various locations in Grand Rapids.

Tenure as the Second Lady & the First Lady of the United States

Elizabeth held the title of the Second Lady of the United States from December 6, 1973, to August 9, 1974, when her husband, Gerald Ford, served as the 40th vice president of the United States under the presidency of Richard Nixon. When Ford succeeded Nixon as the 38th U.S. president on August 9, 1974, Elizabeth became the First Lady of the United States. During this tenure, till January 20, 1977, Elizabeth remained actively associated with several social issues.

She was described by Steinhauer of ‘The New York Times’ as “a product and symbol of the cultural and political times.” She was outspoken on issues such as premarital-sex and psychiatric treatment and spoke understandingly on the use of marijuana, expressing that her children may also have used the drug which was popular among youngsters. Although her comments were criticized by some conservatives, who tagged her as “No Lady” and demanded her “resignation,” she was mostly appreciated by people.

She advocated for and remained candid on women’s rights and emerged as a prominent figure of the American feminist movement of the 1970s. She passionately backed the ‘ERA’ and lobbied for the proposed amendment to the ‘United States Constitution’ to get its formal approval. She also confronted the amendment’s opponents. She was called the “Fighting First Lady” of the U.S. by ‘Time’ magazine and was named the “Woman of the Year” in 1975.

Meanwhile, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to undergo a mastectomy on September 28, 1974. She not only talked about her breast cancer and treatment in detail but also became a prominent figure who raised public awareness on the disease. Americans, till such time, were not even comfortable talking about this disease. Her efforts led to a surge in self-examination among women. The reported cases of the disease also rose. Some researchers called this phenomenon the “Betty Ford blip.” Scores of women, including Happy Rockefeller, the wife of Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, thanked Elizabeth for helping them detect the disease early and thus saving their lives.

She supported abortion. However, it was not clear whether the president also shared the same outlook as his wife. Elizabeth, in a later interview with Larry King in December 1999, mentioned that Ford also held pro-choice views. Following this, she was censured by the conservatives of the ‘Republican Party.’

She advocated for the arts as the First Lady. She played a key role in conferring the ‘Presidential Medal of Freedom’ to Martha Graham in 1976. Her style of dance earned her an award from ‘Parsons the New School for Design.’ The ‘Primetime Emmy Award’-winning popular American sitcom ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ featured Elizabeth in a cameo role in January 1976.

After her husband lost the 1976 presidential election to Jimmy Carter, Elizabeth delivered the concession speech on his behalf, as he had lost his voice while campaigning.

Career After Her Tenure as the First Lady

Since 1977, following her ‘White House’ career, Elizabeth continued to remain active and candid on several social issues. She was actively involved in women’s issues and the feminist movement. She also continued to support and lobby for the passage of the ‘ERA.’ She supported equal pay for women, raised breast cancer awareness, spoke on different programs, and allowed her name to be used for fundraising for charities.

She was made part of the second ‘National Commission’ on the ‘Observance of International Women’s Year’ by President Jimmy Carter in 1977. She took part in the opening session of the ‘National Women’s Conference’ held in November that year in Houston, Texas. There, she endorsed steps in the ‘National Plan of Action’ of the convention. Following this, the report on how to improve the status of women in America was sent to the president, the ‘U.S. Congress,’ and the state legislatures.

She was the first First Lady who publicly announced her long struggle with alcoholism and substance abuse. Her family arranged an intervention in 1978 and forced her to deal with her alcoholism and her addiction to opioid analgesics. Following her recovery, Elizabeth not only raised awareness about addiction but also co-founded the ‘Betty Ford Center’ (originally named the ‘Betty Ford Clinic’), along with Leonard Firestone and Dr. James West, on October 4, 1982, in Rancho Mirage, California. It is a residential treatment center that offers outpatient, inpatient, and residential day treatment for people with substance dependence. She served as the first chairperson of the center from October 4, 1982, till January 25, 2005. She eventually relinquished the chair and was succeeded by her daughter, Susan.

Her books include ‘The Times of My Life’ (1978) and ‘Betty: A Glad Awakening’ (1987), both co-authored with Chris Chase. She also wrote ‘Healing and Hope: Six Women from the Betty Ford Center Share Their Powerful Journeys of Addiction and Recovery’ (2003).

She received the ‘Award for Greatest Public Service Benefiting the Disadvantaged,’ awarded by ‘Jefferson Awards’ in 1985. She also received the ‘Presidential Medal of Freedom’ from President George H.W. Bush on November 18, 1991, and a ‘Congressional Gold Medal’ in 1999. A ‘Golden Palm Star’ was dedicated to her and Ford on the ‘Palm Springs Walk of Stars’ in 1999. Elizabeth was also inducted into the ‘National Women’s Hall of Fame’ in 2013.

Family & Personal Life

Elizabeth was married to William G. Warren from 1942 to September 22, 1947.

She married Gerald Ford on October 15, 1948, at the ‘Grace Episcopal Church’ in Grand Rapids. Back then, he was a Second World War veteran and lawyer. The couple had a fulfilling married life, spanning 58 years, till Ford’s death. They never shied away from openly expressing their love and respect for each other. They had four children, namely, Michael Gerald Ford (born in 1950), John Gardner Ford (born in 1952), Steven Meigs Ford (born in 1956), and Susan Elizabeth Ford (born in 1957).

Elizabeth died a natural death on July 8, 2011. She was 93 years old at the time of her death. Her funeral was held on July 12, 2011, in Palm Desert, California. It was attended by several eminent personalities, including former president George W. Bush and the then-First Lady, Michelle Obama. A second service was held on July 14 that year at the ‘Grace Episcopal Church.’ It was attended by former president Bill Clinton among others. Her remains were interred beside those of her husband’s, in the grounds of the ‘Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum.’ Her statue was unveiled outside the museum later, in July 2018.

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