Content with being the unknown wife of a congressman, Betty Ford was thrust into the limelight when her husband Gerald Ford unexpectedly became Vice President in 1973 and then President in 1974, following President Nixon’s resignation after the Watergate scandal. Her outspokenness and frankness immediately washed away her past obscurity and endeared her to the millions of people now intently watching her. Upon becoming First Lady, she ordered her press secretary to always “provide honest answers,” a rule which Betty also abided. She frankly answered questions about her own drug and alcohol dependence, cancer surgery, psychotherapy, and her children’s experimentations with drugs. Her candidness went beyond her personal life: she was passionate and outspoken about women’s issues. When the Equal Rights Amendment faced ratification in the states, she personally called legislators and encouraged them to support it. Well-respected by her husband, she influenced him to nominate more women to influential posts. Under his presidency, sixty-six women served in posts that required Senate approval, a record at the time. When Betty Ford was nominated as a Fellow of the National Academy of Design, photographer Ansel Adams praised Betty for being “the most refreshing character we’ve had in public life for some time.”
Facts and quotations from First Ladies: From Martha Washington to Michelle Obama by Betty Boyd Caroli. C-Span is exploring the influence of First Ladies in its series.
Image credit: First Lady Betty Ford talking on the phone in the living quarters of the White House, February 6, 1975. Photograph of Marion S. Trikosko, courtesy of the Library of Congress.