|Lived:||April 8, 1914—July 8, 2011 (aged 97)|
|Career:||Chairman of the board, Betty Ford Center, 1982-2005|
First lady of the United States, 1974-1977
Second lady of the United States, 1973-1974
Elizabeth Ann "Betty" Ford was the wife of the 38th president of the United States, Gerald Ford, and was the first lady from 1974 to 1977. As first lady, she was active in social policy and created precedents as a politically active presidential wife.
Ford was born April 8, 1918, in Chicago, Illinois. She intended to pursue a profession in dance, studying at Bennington College School of Dance, Vermont, in the summers of 1937 and 1938. During high school, she opened her own dance school called Betty Bloomer Dance School, renting space to use as a studio where she taught children and adults. She danced for the Martha Graham Auxiliary Dance Company in New York, New York, from 1940 to 1941, making numerous appearances in New York, including one at Carnegie Hall.
She married William Gustavas Warren, an insurance and furniture salesman, on April 23, 1942. As she was planning on filing for divorce, her husband suffered a coma. For two years, she cared for him while he recovered; however, once he was able to return to work, the divorce proceeded on the grounds of "extensive repeated cruelty."
Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr. and Betty Ford met through mutual friends and married just two weeks before Election Day in 1948, on which Gerald Ford was running for United States Congress. On November 2, 1948, Ford was elected to the first of twelve consecutive terms as a U.S. Congressman.
The Fords lived in Washington, D.C. until 1955 when—after Ford won his fourth consecutive term and felt secure in his position—they built a home on Crown View Drive in Alexandria, Virginia, just over the river from Washington. In August of 1974, the house would serve briefly as the official presidential residence in the first two weeks of the Ford Administration, before they were able to transition into the White House.
One day, Mrs. Ford pinched a nerve on the left side of her neck while opening a window; it resulted in immediate and severe muscle spasms, periphrastic neuropathy, a numbed left neck, shoulder and arm, and arthritis. Treatment with various types of prescription pain medications led to a dependency on them. Although seeking the professional help of a mental health expert proved beneficial, she did not address her growing dependency on prescription pain medication, sometimes numbering up to twenty a day. All of it would be exacerbated by what she viewed at the time as normal alcohol consumption, a routine among the cocktail parties which congressional couples were then expected to frequent. Only later, in 1978, confronted by her family and recognizing the alcoholism of her father, one of her brothers and her first husband, did Ford admit that she had been in denial about her dependency on alcoholic beverages.
With the resignation of Richard Nixon from the presidency after the Watergate scandal, Gerald Ford was sworn in as president on August 9, 1974.
On September 26, 1974, Mrs. Ford was diagnosed with malignant breast cancer during a routine mammogram at Walter Reed Army Hospital. She and her husband kept it secret until two days later, when the first lady underwent a mastectomy. Ford made the unprecedented decision to be entirely forthcoming about her health condition, raising public awareness and forever changing the perception of the disease.
Ford was the first recipient of the National Women's Party's Alice Paul Award, named after the legendary suffragist, and it was in continuing the effort of women fighting for equal rights from an earlier generation where she made her greatest mark. Specifically, it was in her words and deeds to help encourage passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, intended to guarantee that equal rights under any federal, state or local law could not be denied on account of gender.
Ford passed away on July 8, 2011.