Updated: Aug 30
“Have you heard the news?” I received a flurry of emails like this from family members
The broad contours of Betty Ford’s life and career are undoubtedly familiar to readers: she grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and studied dance with Martha Graham before she married Gerald Ford, who was then running for Congress. Upon his election in 1948, the young couple moved to the suburbs of Washington, D.C. There, Betty Ford performed the role of Congressional wife while raising four children amidst the conventions of post-World War II domestic life. The Fords were beginning to make plans for Gerald Ford’s retirement from Congress in the early 1970s when he was appointed Vice President, then became President upon the resignation of Richard Nixon. As First Lady, Betty Ford was often described as a breath of fresh air, bringing a welcome informality and directness to the White House. She spoke frankly about many political issues, including the ERA, as well as about the challenges of parenting during that turbulent era. Soon after her husband’s inauguration, Betty Ford was diagnosed with breast cancer, and her disclosure of her illness and the details of her treatment won her admiration and affection. President Ford was defeated in 1976—a loss that some observers blamed in part on Betty Ford’s political outspokenness. A few years later, Betty Ford was again in the news, this time when she sought treatment for addiction to painkillers and alcohol. Following her recovery, she helped establish the well-known treatment center that bears her name.
Looking back on these events now, I am struck by how they seem both recent and remote, and how the chronology has become blurred, with Betty Ford’s celebrity overriding the periodization of President Ford’s administration. Before I began looking closely at the 1970s, I had assumed that her addictions, like her breast cancer, had been disclosed while she was First Lady, and that her announcement single-handedly altered the landscape for alcoholic women during the 1970s. In fact, as the very title of Tess Lanzarotta’s paper from the recent Buffalo conference reminds us (“Before Betty Ford: Explaining the Panic over Female Alcoholism, 1965-1980”), significant changes were already underway by the time Betty Ford sought treatment in 1978. As Lanzarotta explained, social science experts and the popular media had begun turning their attention to alcoholism among women during the latter 1960s and early 1970s. Moreover, Women for Sobriety, a self-help group for female alcoholics, was founded by Jean Kirkpatrick in 1976 as an alternative to Alcoholics Anonymous. That same year, the National Council on Alcoholism, a voluntary public health and educational organization, launched a new Office on Women, while the U.S. Congress held hearings on “The Female Alcoholic’s Special Problems and Unmet Needs.”
None of this is meant to minimize the impact of what Betty Ford did. In fact, I think that her very effectiveness in creating or at least accelerating change can obscure the import of her actions and their reverberations down to the present. Today, with pink ribbons a common accessory, it can be hard to appreciate how courageous she was in disclosing her breast cancer. Similarly, now that “intervention” is both a reality television show and an overused joke in popular culture, it can be difficult to comprehend how significant it was when the family of a former president of the United States revealed that they had staged an intervention, and not for a youthful user but for the family’s wife and mother, the former First Lady.
It is also important to note that Betty Ford did not disclose her addiction to pills and alcohol simultaneously. Rather, the initial announcement stated that she was seeking treatment for dependence on prescription medications, with an acknowledgement of alcoholism following a few days later. Even then, for some time she and her family tended to refer to her drinking as though it was only a problem because of interaction with her pills. I find this pattern intriguing, suggesting as it does that a greater stigma remained attached to alcoholism, at least for women. Today, due in no small measure to her eventual frankness in talking about her reliance on both prescription medications and alcohol, accounts of her life in the press—such as her obituary in the New York Times—tend to depict the two as parallel or equivalent problems or even to merge them as two facets of the same condition. This shift reflects, I think, new conceptions of addiction over the last thirty years as well as changes in the cultural and gendered meanings ascribed to alcohol and prescription medications as substances.
Much of our fascination with Betty Ford comes from the way she seemed to be typical even as she was remarkable, as my mother and her friends appreciated back in the 1970s. This tension has informed public perceptions of her as an alcoholic and addict, as well. While she was hardly the average housewife, the broad outlines of her life conformed to a domestic narrative that could explain her addiction in familiar terms. Similarly, while lending her name to a treatment center made her exceptional by definition, she and her supporters emphasized her ordinariness as a way to inspire others to follow her example and seek help. Her importance in changing the lives of people who struggle with addiction is beyond question, in my view. Now, with her passing, I hope to better understand the complex ways in which she changed our culture.