While today’s Republican Party generally opposes advancements in women’s rights, that was not always the case. Historically, there have been a number of Republican figures who were major supporters of progressive social change. Among these was First Lady of the United States Betty Ford.

Betty Ford was born in 1918 in Chicago. During her teenage years she modeled clothing and taught children to dance in order to support her family during the Great Depression. After graduating high school she continued to pursue dancing in New York City despite objections from her mother. She returned home later, and married her first husband William Warren. Warren was an alcoholic who was cruel to Betty, and she finally divorced him after caring for him for several years while he was ill.

Courtesy of www.fordlibrarymuseum.gov.
Young Betty Ford. (Image via.)

In 1948 she married Gerald Ford while he was campaigning for the first of his thirteen terms in the United States House of Representatives. The two of them were among the more openly affectionate First Couples in American history and it was clear that they held a deep mutual respect for one another. Betty had three sons during her marriage to Ford, and was known never to spank her sons, as she believed there were better ways of disciplining children.

First Lady Ford’s greatest contribution was her support for the women’s movement during and after her husband’s presidency. She was unapologetically pro-choice and was a strong supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment during it’s attempted ratification. She also spoke candidly during her life about her struggle with breast cancer after undergoing a mastectomy in 1974. This activism earned her the ire of more conservative forces in the Republican Party at the time, who referred to her as “No Lady.”

After her husband’s failed reelection campaign against Jimmy Carter in 1976 she continued her advocacy for human rights despite her own personal struggles. Betty was an alcoholic who went into treatment after the Ford family staged an intervention. After her recovery she established the Betty Ford Center to help treat others who were suffering from chemical dependency. She continued to support women’s reproductive rights, equal pay, and the ERA for the rest of her life.

Betty Ford with Eleanor Smeal in 1981. Courtesy of CNN.com.
Betty Ford with Eleanor Smeal in 1981. (Image via)

On July 8, 2011, Betty Ford died at the age of 93. Over 800 people attended her funeral service, including former President George W. Bush and other First Ladies Michelle Obama, Rosalynn Carter, and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Ford left behind a legacy that inspired people to remain active in the women’s movement and to continue fighting for equal rights, and a reminder that Republican first ladies could stand up for reproductive rights.


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