A pro-choice Republican and ERA supporter, Betty Ford followed her heart
EDITOR’S NOTE: “Betty Ford: Vail Valley’s First Lady” by Elizabeth Eber and Jane Imber is a book commissioned by the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens to honor Betty Ford and recognize her unique contributions to our area. The book will be presented to Mrs. Ford at a tribute event Aug. 7 in Ford Park. Over the next two weeks, the Vail Daily will serialize the contents of the book on page 5.
When Jerry Ford called to invite her on a date, she said no. “I can’t say it was love at first sight,” she later explained, “but … I wondered if maybe it would work.” Fortunately, he persisted and she relented. They were engaged in February 1948 and he waited until after she said yes to tell her he was planning to run for the U.S. Congress. Their wedding was scheduled according to the primaries and they spent their honeymoon campaigning. Betty was learning what it meant to be a politician’s wife.”I was not a political animal,” she said in her 2001 A&E television interview. “When I got to Washington, I had to study very hard to learn about politics.” By all evidence, she was an excellent student. Her enthusiastic advocacy opened avenues of change for poor and disabled children, generated support for the arts and civil rights, promoted greater protections for abused children, the mentally ill, and the elderly, and focused attention on women’s issues. She was an ardent supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) when Washington was leaning the other way. The Eagle Forum’s Phyllis Schlafly was picketing her as well as questioning her ERA lobbying finances, and even her Secret Service agent told her, “You’re nuts.” Betty Ford not only supported the ERA, she actively lobbied for its passage. In October 1975, Betty Ford was a featured speaker at the International Women’s Year Conference. In her formal remarks, she said, “Many barriers continue to the paths of most women, even on the most basic issue of equal pay for equal work. And the contributions of women as wives and mothers continue to be underrated. She further explained “my own support of the ERA has shown what happens when a definition of proper behavior collides with the right of an individual to personal opinions. I do not believe being First Lady should prevent me from expressing my views.” That was quintessential Betty Ford, extrapolating her struggles and her experience to others for the good of all.
In an August 1975 60 Minutes interview, Betty said, “When the Supreme Court voted to legalize abortion and bring it out of the backwoods and into the hospitals where it belonged, I thought it was a great decision.” The White House got letters – over 28,000 of them – but it didn’t stop her. “Ordinarily, I’m hard to muzzle,” she wrote with characteristic self-perception. While speaking out for the rights of women to have careers outside the home, and respecting the choice not to, Betty was raising four intelligent, accomplished and loving children: Michael, Jack, Steven, and Susan. As her daughter, Susan Ford Bales, once said, “She was not a single mother, but she did a lot of it alone.” And she did it all: Cub Scout den mother, Sunday school teacher, PTA member, gardener, everything but a great cook, although her pork chops, she says, are pretty good.
She also became a skier. While they were still dating, Jerry took Betty to the northern woods of Michigan for her first time on skis. He taught her how to herringbone up the hill and slide down, and then left her there for the rest of the day while he skied the bowls. Somehow, she took to the sport anyway. Their children outgrew Michigan’s mountains and spurred them to head west. They tried Sun Valley and Alta before falling in love with Vail.Vail, Colorado