Republicans once competed for the votes of women as a party that was officially committed to passing the Equal Rights Amendment and reasonably respectful of the right to choose. And the face of Republican feminism was Betty Ford.
The most politically outspoken first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt, and arguably the most candid first lady ever, Elizabeth Ann Bloomer Ford was during her time in the White House and the years immediately following the 1976 defeat of her husband Gerald Ford, a powerful and important advocate for women’s rights and one of the last nationally recognized and respected champions of socially liberal Republicanism.
Betty Ford’s death Friday, at age 93, came long after the Grand Old Party had formally and fully abandoned her values—and those of her mainstream Republican husband. In that sense, her death marks a broader passage politically than that of most former first ladies. It is difficult to imagine that the Republican Party will ever again send to the White House a woman who—as first lady or President (and there were more than a few commentators who suggested that Betty Ford would have made a fine commander-in-chief)—would unapologetically declare herself to be a feminist, support abortion rights,endorse pay equity and lead the fight for passage of the ERA.
But Betty Ford did all this, working closely with leaders of the National Organization for Women as a Republican “face” of the struggle to secure the rights of women.
“Betty Ford was the first first lady to really be consistently, publicly (outspoken) about women’s rights and women’s issues,” explained Susan Hartmann, a historian of feminism. “She was the most visible Republican feminist.”
When her husband assumed the presidency in 1974, after the collapse of Richard Nixon’s administration, he was the first president in American history to come to the position by appointment (Nixon has chosen him a year earlier to replace scandal-plagued Vice President Spiro Agnew) rather than elected as a member of a national party ticket.
That led some pundits to imagine that the Fords would be caretaker administrators.
But Betty Ford signaled immediately that she intended to be heard.
“I do not believe that being First Lady should prevent me from expressing my views,” she declared.
One of her top priorities was supporting the amendment of the Constitution to fully respect and protect the rights of women. The ERA was an old idea—"Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex"—that had been proposed in slightly different form by women’s suffrage champion Alice Paul in 1923. Initially embraced by the Republican Party, which added a pro-ERA plank to the national platform in the 1940s, the amendment was eventually endorsed by the Democrats as well. After years of being introduced but not advanced in Congress, the ERA was finally approved by Congress in 1972 and sent to the states for ratification.