I was sad to hear the news that Betty Ford had died, but happy that she was remembered as a First Lady who had made a difference. It’s hard now to remember how astonishing her announcements that she had breast cancer, and, later, an addiction to painkillers were at the time.
Elly Peterson was not a longtime close friend of Betty Ford’s, but I know she admired her, and they worked closely together in the mid-seventies, when Peterson worked in Gerald R. Ford’s presidential campaign and served as co-chair of ERAmerica. Betty Ford was not afraid to speak her mind, and make reasonable pronouncements about the world in which she lived, no matter the political consequences. Her children might be smoking marijuana, her daughter might live with someone before she was married, it was better for women to have abortions in medical facilities than in back alleys. Of course, that was not necessarily good politics as far as her husband was concerned, but so be it. She was certainly a breath of fresh air, no matter your age or political perspective.
Betty Ford’s commitment to the Equal Rights Amendment was important to Peterson, and other moderate women who were working for ratification of the amendment in the mid-1970s. When Peterson served as deputy chairman of the President Ford Committee in 1976, she recognized that Betty Ford was an asset who could help attract moderate women to support the president. Even after her husband was defeated in 1976, the former First Lady played an important role in continuing to support the Equal Rights Amendment. At the National Women’s Conference in Houston in 1977, Betty Ford and Rosalynn Carter served as honorary co-chairs of a rally in support of ERA that was attended by 4,000 persons. It was a demonstration that at the time, there was strong bipartisan support for the amendment. Ford remained a vocal advocate for the ERA at least through 1980, when the Republican National Convention failed–for the first time in many years–to endorse the ERA in its platform.
As I was wrapping up the research on my book, I interviewed Kathleen Currie, who had served as the PR person for ERAmerica. She commented on Peterson’s political savvy and her lack of ego in pursuing the ERA campaign. She recalled that Peterson’s attitude was “I don’t have to be on the podium for this to work,” and “Why do you need me when we could have Betty Ford?”
Persons younger than me will probably forever associate Betty Ford’s name with celebrity addiction. I don’t think she would mind that, but it would be nice if she were remembered for more than that.