Was Betty Ford the Last Activist First Lady?

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
July 11 2011 10:40 AM

What Happened to the Activist First Lady?

51603425
AFP/Getty Images

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:

Jessica Grose Jessica Grose

Jessica Grose is a frequent Slate contributor and the author of the novel Sad Desk Salad. Follow her on Twitter.

Advertisement

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.

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.

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

The World

The Budget Disaster that Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

Are the Attacks in Canada a Sign of ISIS on the Rise in the West?

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

Is It Offensive When Kids Use Bad Words for Good Causes?

Fascinating Maps Based on Reddit, Craigslist, and OkCupid Data

Culturebox

The Real Secret of Serial

What reporter Sarah Koenig actually believes.

Culturebox

The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

In Praise of 13th Grade: Why a Fifth Year of High School Is a Great Idea

Can Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu Pull Off One More Louisiana Miracle?

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 23 2014 3:55 PM Panda Sluggers Democrats are in trouble. Time to bash China.
  Business
Business Insider
Oct. 23 2014 2:36 PM Take a Rare Peek Inside the Massive Data Centers That Power Google
  Life
Outward
Oct. 23 2014 5:08 PM Why Is an Obscure 1968 Documentary in the Opening Credits of Transparent?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 23 2014 11:33 AM Watch Little Princesses Curse for the Feminist Cause
  Slate Plus
Working
Oct. 23 2014 11:28 AM Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 2 Transcript Read what David Plotz asked Dr. Meri Kolbrener about her workday.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 23 2014 5:08 PM What Happens When You Serve McDonald’s to Food Snobs and Tell Them It’s Organic
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 23 2014 4:36 PM Vampire Porn Mindgeek is a cautionary tale of consolidating production and distribution in a single, monopolistic owner.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 23 2014 7:30 AM Our Solar System and Galaxy … Seen by an Astronaut
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.