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Betty Ford, Former First Lady and Feminist, 93

A staunch advocate for women's rights and equal rights, Ford spoke publicly in favor of abortion and federally-funded daycare.

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Betty Ford in 1934

Photo By Courtesy Gerald R. Ford Library

While Ford was not known to make waves by the way she dressed, she wasn’t afraid to be seen with those who did. For a night at the opera in New York in the Seventies, the first lady stepped out in delicate diamonds and a chiffon gown, but her escort, Woody Allen, opted for a tux with Converse Chuck Taylors — a high-low combo so unseen that photos of their arrival was beamed all over the world. Ford was pictured around that time looking equally cozy with Liza Minelli at Studio 54, seated on the top of a banquette near Halston. But unlike Minelli, who partied in a breast-baring glittery pantsuit, Ford stuck with an evening gown, albeit a metallic and tastefully sheer one. Her day-to-day signature look often meant a casual chic scarf and masses of family jewelry, including an onyx men’s ring with diamond chips from her mother-in-law, a gold presidential pin surrounded by seeded pearls and four gold bracelets, including one with honey bee charm, a wink at her husband’s nickname. “I call him ‘Honey,’” she said.

A big proponent of American fashion, the former first lady knew that such cheerleading could stoke criticism, especially as inflation and the energy crisis gripped the nation. Ford clued in voters to the first family’s cost-cutting ways for food bills and entertaining. She didn’t hide the fact she would rather dye old shoes than buy new ones for special events, or that buying cosmetics in bulk saved money. And in 1974, she let it be known that she had signed a consumer’s pledge, vowing to buy only products and services that were at or below existing costs. (A decade earlier, the Fords showed their thriftiness by having their four children pitch in for a condo in Vail, Colo., by pooling their money.)

One of only three first ladies to have been divorced before becoming a presidential wife, Ford had the distinction of becoming the first to appear in a sitcom by making a cameo on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” And when her husband was silenced by laryngitis on election night in 1976, Ford reached another first by giving his concession speech. Regardless of the circumstances, Ford rarely shied away from making her points — and there were many — known to the public. In an exclusive interview with WWD in 1973, she said she approved of abortion, especially “for some high school girls who are forced to marry, have their babies and end up in marriages that are fiascoes.”

Despite having been besieged with hate mail for her remarks, Ford told WWD a year later, “Maybe I shouldn’t have said it, but I couldn’t lie. That’s the way I feel.”

She was just as candid with this newspaper about undergoing psychotherapy (“because I was having a hard time getting Jerry out of politics”) and her habit of taking tranquilizers, namely Valium three times a day, to ease the pain of a pinched nerve in her neck. And when that practice became problematic, Ford shared the ordeal of addiction in a very public fashion. In fact, during the course of her husband’s administration and in the years that ensued, she also spoke out about women’s rights, equal rights, abortion, federally funded day care and the arts. In a statement released Friday Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton said, “As a staunch advocate for women’s and equal rights, Betty paved the way for generations of women to follow. Her courage, compassion, and commitment to helping our nation deal with drug and alcohol abuse and addiction helped thousands of people to a successful recovery and in the process she helped to save countless families.”

Her own personal battles with alcoholism, prescription drug addiction and breast cancer helped encourage others to seek treatment. Since that time, thousands of people have fought substance abuse at The Betty Ford Center, which she established in Rancho Mirage, Calif., in 1982.

Ford was also candid about how her first marriage ended in divorce and the benefits of psychotherapy, other topics of conversation that were not warmly accepted in the Seventies. She also told WWD that unlike most of their predecessors, she and her husband would share a presidential bed. “We’ve been doing it for 25 years and we’re not going to stop now.”

More recently, Ford wrote a warm letter to Michelle Obama when she took residence at the White House. Ford reportedly told her daughter Susan, “I don’t know if she knows what she has gotten into. She is really going to be busy.”

As for how Ford hoped to leave her own mark on Washington and beyond, she told WWD in 1974, “The legacy I would like to leave? I would like to leave the same feeling that we had as a family, a feeling of unity and harmony and warmth. I would like to leave the White House with the feeling that we in this country area little more of a family, that we’re all together.”

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