Yesterday & Today
A Leading Lady
Betty Ford’s candor about her breast cancer diagnosis helped bring a private issue out of the shadows.
By Corinna Wu
Photo by David Hume Kennerly / White House / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images
The summer of 1974 was one of the most tumultuous times in United States history. As the world watched in shock, on Aug. 9, Richard Nixon, battered by the Watergate scandal, resigned as president, transferring executive power to Vice President Gerald Ford. Thirty minutes later, Ford was sworn into office by Chief Justice Warren Burger in the East Room of the White House with his wife, Betty, by his side.
As the new first lady, Betty Ford quickly revealed her independent streak. Less than a month after her husband’s swearing-in, she held the first press conference given by a first lady since Mamie Eisenhower gave one in 1953, and she reiterated her support of abortion rights, a position opposed to that of her husband. As John Robert Greene wrote in his biography of Betty Ford, the White House soon discovered “the first lady would, when put in front of a camera, speak her mind.”
A few weeks later, Ford demonstrated yet again how personal politics could be. She was accompanying a friend who had made an appointment for a breast exam, and her friend encouraged Ford to have an exam as well. The doctor found a marble-sized lump in her right breast. Two days later, her surgeons performed a radical mastectomy, removing her entire breast as well as her pectoral muscles and the lymph nodes under her right arm.
Betty Ford’s candor helped bring discussion of breast cancer into the public sphere. | Photo by David Hume Kennerly / Getty Images
As first lady, Ford was expected to be visible and travel with the president, but the long recovery her radical mastectomy required could have kept her out of the public eye—which the press would have quickly noticed. She could have downplayed her diagnosis, perhaps issuing a few press releases that alluded to an illness, and no more. Instead, Ford stepped into the spotlight. She gave interviews to the media and allowed photos to be taken of her in the hospital. And the news media ran with the story.
At the time, discussing any cancer—especially breast cancer—was taboo. “In obituaries prior to the 1950s and 1960s, women who died from breast cancer were often listed as dying from ‘a prolonged disease’ or ‘a woman’s disease,’ ” says Tasha Dubriwny, an assistant professor of communication and women’s and gender studies at Texas A&M University, in College Station. “Breast cancer wasn’t even named as the onus.”
Ford’s candor brought breast cancer into the public sphere. After her diagnosis and treatment, the number of women getting breast exams increased dramatically, as did the number of women willing to talk about their own diagnoses. The silence around the disease had ended—thanks in large part to Ford.
An Auspicious Start
Betty Ford was born Elizabeth Ann Bloomer on April 8, 1918, in Chicago; two years later, her family moved to Grand Rapids, Mich. Her father, a traveling salesman for a company that sold rubber conveyor belts to factories, did well, allowing the family to become prosperous and socially connected. Betty, an energetic, self-described tomboy, had no problem mixing it up with her two older brothers.
Betty’s mother, Hortense, enrolled her in dance lessons at age 8, and she soon fell in love with the art. After graduating from high school, she attended the Bennington School of Dance in Vermont, where she came under the tutelage of the pioneering choreographer Martha Graham. “I worshipped her as a goddess,” Ford wrote in her 1978 memoir, The Times of My Life.
Betty Ford and her daughter, Susan, take in the view from the White House in April 1975, several months after the first lady’s breast cancer diagnosis and radical mastectomy. | Photo by David Hume Kennerly / Getty Images
After a second summer at Bennington, Betty moved to New York City, where she joined the Martha Graham Dance Company and was signed by a modeling agency. She studied with Graham for three years but ultimately did not get chosen for the troupe’s traveling company. Hortense, who disapproved of Betty’s pursuit of a career in dance, encouraged her daughter to return to Grand Rapids.
Back home, Betty took a job at a local department store as a fashion director and taught dance. She fell in love with a young businessman, William Warren, and they were married in 1942. But the travel his job required, along with his alcoholism, took a toll on their relationship, and they divorced five years later.
She met Gerald Ford in 1947, as her divorce was pending, and their courtship proceeded discreetly so as not to be interpreted as an affair. He proposed to her in late 1947 or early 1948—the couple disagreed on the date—with the proviso that they not get married right away. He would not tell her why. The reason, she later learned, was that he had plans to run for the House of Representatives from Michigan’s Fifth Congressional District, and marrying a woman who not only was divorced but also a former dancer was seen as a liability by his
advisers in securing the Republican nomination that September. A month after his win, and just two weeks before the general election, on Oct. 15, 1948, Betty Bloomer Warren became Mrs. Betty Ford.