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Betty Ford to Michelle Obama: How seven first ladies have changed the office

Former presidents, politicians, and the family of former first lady Betty Ford gathered today in Palm Springs, Calif., to celebrate her life. Mrs. Ford, who died Friday, is remembered for her honest demeanor and dedication to equal rights. Since her husband's presidency, Betty Ford has passed the mantle of first lady to six other women. Here are the contributions each made:

Then-President Clinton applauds as former President Ford and Betty Ford kiss, after they both received the Congressional Medal of Honor in Washington in this 1999 file photo.
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters / File
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1. Betty Ford

Betty Ford's honesty defined her, as first lady and beyond.

After her breast cancer diagnosis in 1974, Mrs. Ford first used her influence as first lady to speak about breast examinations, treatment options, and emotional side effects of the cancer. Her openness about cancer and female health inspired change for women who had been ashamed of their own struggles with the disease.

Unlike many politicians, Ford participated in interviews without receiving the questions beforehand, and her answers sometimes shocked listeners. She spoke of sleeping with the president – countering assumptions that they slept in separate beds – and her respect for unmarried couples who chose to live together. Ford also commented on widespread marijuana use by youth and compared it to having a “first beer.”

Ford endlessly lobbied for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment that would guarantee equal rights to all on the federal, state, and local levels. Her campaign for women's rights garnered her Time magazine’s “Women of the Year.” She urged the president to designate 1975 as International Women’s Year, and she continued to fight for rights and larger roles in society for women after President Ford lost his reelection bid.

Ford fulfilled the traditional charitable efforts of first ladies by working with several organizations, including the Hospital for Sick Children and No Greater Love, both of which benefitted minority patients.

Ford’s public honesty continued after she moved out of the White House, most notably regarding her relationship with alcohol. She fully disclosed her dependence on it and her experience undergoing a family intervention and rehabilitation. Her experiences led her to establish the Betty Ford Center, a part of the Eisenhower Medical Center in California created to help women cope with issues that can lead to alcohol and drug abuse.

Against Republican norms, Ford spoke out in support of people fighting AIDS after she realized many of those individuals also suffered from alcohol or drug dependencies. She also advocated for gay rights in the workplace and for same-sex marriage. She wrote, “God put us all here for His own purposes; it’s not my business to try and second-guess Him.”

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