Saturday, July 9, 2011

Betty Ford

Today’s Awesome Woman is Betty Ford, (1918-2011) who died yesterday at the age of 93. Her death touched me in a deep & unexpected way as I realized how much she affected my life. As a sober woman for 26 years, I think I owe my life & my recovery to Betty. When she was hospitalized for her addiction to pain pills & alcohol in 1978, instead of hiding the reason for her hospitalization or treat it with shame, she chose to be publicly honest & fully disclose the details of her addictions & treatment with courage & grace. The publicity of her addiction & recovery created an awareness with the general public about the diseases of alcoholism & addiction which lost a lot of the shameful stigma attached to them. Although I did not go through the Betty Ford Clinic, I think my willingness to get the help I needed was a direct result of her shining a light. She made it okay to be a woman alcoholic. And to seek help. And to not be ashamed. It created awareness that one did not have to be the stereotypical skid row bum, that alcoholism affected everyone from all walks of life. And if that was the only thing she did in her life, she deserves the Awesome Woman of the Day pick. But there was much, much more to her.

As First Lady, Ford was active in social policy and shattered precedents as a politically active presidential wife (Time considered her "the most since Eleanor Roosevelt"). In the opinion of several historians, Ford had more impact upon history and culture than her husband. Ford was noted for raising breast cancer awareness following her 1974 mastectomy and was a passionate supporter of, and activist for, the Equal Rights Amendment. Pro-choice on abortion and a leader in the Women's Movement, she gained fame as one of the most candid first ladies in history, commenting on every hot-button issue of the time, including feminism, equal pay, ERA, sex, drugs, abortion, and gun control.

Born in 1918, Betty developed an early passion for dance which she avidly studied . To help defray the expense of her dance classes, she began modeling clothing at a local department store. During some years in high school, Betty opened her own dance school, renting space to use as a studio where she taught children. She also brought dance instruction into a Grand Rapids’ African-American community with a regular weekly class there for children. With her mother’s hospital work exposing Betty Ford early on to people living with disabilities, she also took on students who were deaf and blind, instructing a sight-impaired student to do ballroom dancing, and even learning rudimentary sign-language to instruct the hearing-impaired. She also entertained and worked with children with disabilities at the Mary Free Bed Home for Crippled Children. At Bennington College she continued to study dance and was given the opportunity to study with Martha Graham In New York. She made numerous appearances with the Martha Graham Auxiliary Dance Company in New York.

Her home life while growing up was difficult. After the stock market crash of 1929, she began working at the age of 14. When Betty was 16, her father died in a manner that might have been suicide. Later in life, Betty realized that both her father & brother were alcoholics. After the death of her father, her mother, Hortense Bloomer, supported herself and three children by working as a real-estate agent. Betty Ford later reflected that the example of her mother’s independence would prove to be an important influence in shaping her views on equal pay for equal work policy issues. In a 1987 interview, Mrs. Ford mentioned not only her mother and Martha Graham as her strongest role models and influences but also Eleanor Roosevelt.

At her mother’s urging, Betty returned to Grand Rapids from New York. At the age of 24, she married her first husband, William Warren. The marriage ended in divorce 5 years later on the grounds of “extensive repeated cruelty.” Warren was also alcoholic, a reality that only later Betty Ford confronted while seeking her own recovery from the disease later in life. During this whole period, Betty continued to work. In a 1987 interview, she reflected that the period would prove an instructive one for her as it was her first full recognition of the inequitable salaries between the genders who performed the same work.

In 1947 she began dating Gerald Ford. He proposed marriage to her, but told her they could not marry until the fall because he had a secret regarding something he “had to do first.” She accepted, only to soon be told by him that, he was planning to run for the Republican nomination for the local seat to the U.S. Congress, and then the general election. Ford had practical concerns that the morally conservative district might not support his marriage to a divorced woman who had a career in modern dance. The wedding was announced in June of that year – after he had won the Republican nomination. Betty became both a wife and political spouse practically at the same time. They had four children, but due to Gerald’s political commitments, it fell to Betty Ford to assume most of the traditional responsibilities of a father to the maturing four children in addition to her many active duties as a mother. The increasing stress which resulted from fulfilling commitments to her family, community and her husband’s career and the hectic schedule it required, led in time to physical problems that led to her using and then abusing prescription painkillers.

After she left the White House, she continued to work for women’s rights. She spoke in support for gay and lesbian rights in the workplace and later, with the former President, in favor of same-gender marriage. She created the Betty Ford Center for Chemical Dependency in order to help women in recovery.

A truly amazing and awesome woman. Thank you Betty for being you so publicly.

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