If someone were to ask you for your list of top political feminists, former First Lady Betty Ford would probably not be on that hit parade.
But she should be.
Betty Ford passed away last week at the age of 93, a woman best known for being the wife of President Gerald Ford who was portrayed by SNL’s Chevy Chase as the clumsy chief executive who thought trimming the Christmas tree meant taking a scissors to the stray branches of the yuletide greenery.
But as a person who came of age in the era of Betty and Gerald Ford, I know that she was so much more than just your run of the mill political spouse, even though many may not remember her that way. Betty Ford was a stealth feminist and advocate of issues that impacted women in an era when most were loathe to talk about a disease that many women were ashamed or embarrassed to even mention publicly.
Betty Ford wasn’t afraid to speak her mind, which she did in a quiet and respectful way. As I watched the tributes to her this weekend, I was reminded that once upon a time there was a high profile Republican woman who wasn’t afraid to say exactly what she thought on controversial issues, even when that meant disagreeing with her President husband and bucking her own political party. Think about it — if any other former First Lady had admitted to substance abuse and then founded a rehab center today, her so-called allies would have distanced themselves from her and her family quicker than John McCain left Sarah Palin in the presidential dust after his 2008 concession speech? Not to mention that cable news talking heads would have exploded.
Imagine for just one second the wives of Mitt Romney or Jon Huntsman coming out in opposition to the party platform or confessing to being something other than perfect wives and mothers? Sure, Meghan McCain disagreed with her father from time to time, but she wasn’t all that vocal about it when he was on the presidential campaign trail in 2008.
Betty Ford spoke out about breast cancer at a time when it was the disease no one talked about. She publicly praised the Supreme Court for it’s Roe vs. Wade decision so that abortions would come out of the back alleys and women’s lives could be saved in hospitals. She marched with Gloria Steinem. She admitted her addictions and founded a center to help others who battled those same demons.
And she was a Republican.
I miss that kind of Republican — the kind that isn’t an idealogue and who doesn’t fear the political consequences of not toeing the political line.
Betty Ford is exactly the kind of political woman I want my soon-t0-be sixth grader to know about — whether she agrees with what Betty stood for or not. Because Betty was a woman of her own convictions and she wasn’t afraid who knew it.