Elizabeth Ann Bloomer was born April 8, 1918. She grew up in Grand Rapids and, after a stint with the Martha Graham Concert Group, returned to support herself as the fashion coordinator for a local department store. After a brief first marriage ended in divorce, she began dating "the most eligible bachelor in Grand Rapids."
In February 1948, Jerry Ford offered her this mysterious proposal: "I'd like to marry you," he said, "But we can't get married until next fall, and I can't tell you why." The reason for the delay and the secrecy lay in his first campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives. Two weeks after their wedding, Jerry Ford was elected to Congress, and Betty Ford's life as a political wife began.
As a model congressional spouse and mother of four children, Mrs. Ford ran the household, joined women's clubs, taught Sunday school, attended political functions, and escorted visiting constituents around Washington. She found herself often without her increasingly prominent husband. During the busiest of years, Minority Leader Ford was away from home 258 days.
In 1973, at a time when Mrs. Ford looked forward to a quiet retirement and spending more time with her husband, she was swept up in the events of Watergate and found herself the most scrutinized woman in America. Now a public figure in her own right, she rose to the occasion. Her warmth, good humor, and penchant for straight talk reassured Americans that the White House was no longer a fortress but the residence of a family with whom they could identify.
As First Lady, Mrs. Ford won respect and admiration for her frankness about subjects ranging from breast cancer and premarital sex to equal rights for women. At times her opinions diverged from those of her husband and generated public debate over the proper role of a First Lady. Her controversial "60 Minutes" interview in August 1975, for example, triggered a deluge of nearly 35,000 letters and telegrams, many of them critical. Yet she pleased far more people than she offended. Several months after the interview, a Harris Poll found that Mrs. Ford had become one of history's most popular First Ladies and an asset to her husband in the 1976 Presidential campaign.
She put her popularity to work in an aggressive effort to persuade state legislators across the country to approve the Equal Rights Amendment. Forthright about her own experience with breast cancer, she used her position to alert women to the benefits of early detection. These experiences revealed the influence and power she could wield as First Lady — "Not my power," as she put it later, "but the power of the position, a power which could be used to help."
After her family left the White House, candor remained her trademark. She went public with her decision to seek professional help for prescription drug and alcohol dependence, which she chronicled in her books, Betty Ford: The Times of My Life, and Betty: A Glad Awakening. During the first few years of her recovery, Mrs. Ford worked tirelessly to establish the Betty Ford Center at the Eisenhower Medical Center in southern California. As president of the center, she is still very much involved in its daily operations and speaks often about alcoholism treatment to groups throughout the country. In 1991 she became only the third First Lady to appear before Congress when she testified on the subject before a subcommittee of the House of Representatives. Mrs. Ford remains active in other fields as well. She continues to work with the American Cancer Society on breast cancer awareness and participates in fund-raising efforts for AIDS research and the National Arthritis Foundation.
In the words of Edith Mayo, curator of the First Ladies exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution, "Betty Ford helped restore the public's faith in the Presidency as an institution by creating an atmosphere of honesty." In one of the most difficult of public roles, Betty Ford had the courage to develop her own voice. During a time when women's traditional roles were being questioned, she reassured Americans that feminism and families were not incompatible. And she proved that she could not only overcome life-threatening problems herself, but she could also help others find the will to do the same.