The XX Factor

What Happened to the Activist First Lady?

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Betty Ford, who died on Friday at the age of 93, was first lady before I was born, so I knew her only as the namesake of the rehab clinic she co-founded in 1982. When I read the obituaries of Ford published in The Washington Post and the New York Times this weekend, I was surprised to discover that she was, according to the Post, “an activist first lady” who “provided the women’s movement with an impressive ally.” According to the Times:

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Mrs. Ford rarely hesitated to make public her views on touchy subjects. She held a White House news conference announcing her support of the Equal Rights Amendment; the mail response ran three to one against her. In 1975, appearing on “60 Minutes,” she said she “wouldn’t be surprised” if her daughter, Susan, had a premarital affair; the mail was four to one against her. Her husband jokingly told her later that the comment had cost him 20 million votes in the 1976 election, she said.

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Unfortunately, the backlash against that 60 Minutes appearance caused her to quiet down on other issues dear to her. Though Ford was pro-choice, she did not say anything about the Republican platform which involved a constitutional ban on abortion.

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It’s depressing to see that more recent first ladies like Laura Bush and even Michelle Obama have felt they needed to rein in their true beliefs, as Betty Ford ultimately did. Recall Laura Bush’s admission, after her husband left office, that she was both pro-choice and pro-gay marriage. The desire to remain neutral to the public is certainly understandable, considering the flack from certain Republicans that Michelle Obama has received for her attempts to cut down on childhood obesity, something that’s superficially non-controversial. The hysterical, partisan nature of a lot of news coverage probably means that we’ll never see an activist first lady again. But I have high hopes for what Michelle Obama has to say once her husband is out of office.

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