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Former first lady Betty Ford a defining figure of feminism for a generation

The recent passing of former first lady Betty Ford marks the end of an apparently extinct political designation: the moderate Republican woman.

When Gerald Ford assumed the office of president in 1974 following Richard Nixon’s resignation, first ladies, particularly Republicans, were expected to remain innocuous and mannerly in their public comments.

Betty Ford rejected such limitations and spoke with blunt honesty. She tackled taboo, awkward subjects with aplomb. Seemingly oblivious to the political ramifications of such speech, she spoke her mind freely. In the exhausted, post-war 1970s, Ford’s refreshing frankness and candor reverberated well with moderates of both parties.

Her ideas about equality for women angered some conservative members of the GOP. Though her brand of feminism was somewhat revolutionary at the time, the idea that one could be a Republican and a feminist was not unheard of.

Women in the 1970s were particularly inspired by the Equal Rights Amendment passing Congress. The ERA was an old idea, originally introduced to Congress in 1923. It stated that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

Ford worked tirelessly for the ratification of the ERA in the mid-1970s. She stated that “the search for human freedom can never be complete without freedom for women.”

She believed that if men were to be subject to the draft, women should also. She supported abortion rights, declaring that “having babies is a blessing, not a duty.”

A breast cancer survivor, Ford publicly discussed the specifics of her cancer surgery during a time when the subject of mastectomy was virtually unmentionable. She promoted open dialogue about breast cancer and stressed the need for women to be vigilant in seeking examinations.

Ford struggled with substance abuse, becoming addicted to painkillers and alcohol. In her typical fashion, she was candid about her struggle, her treatment and her recovery. Her experience led to the foundation of the Betty Ford Center in 1982. She raised millions for the center, which promised better addiction treatment, especially for women.

She accepted her role as first lady humbly but with verve. She realized she now had a title that held influence – “not my power, but the power of the position, a power which could be used to help.”

Even after her husband lost his 1976 bid for re-election, a loss many would blame on his wife’s outspoken nature, she continued to battle for ratification of the ERA. But the Republican Party was changing. And Ford’s views were too progressive for the new GOP.

The rightward drift of the GOP and the escalating division between the left and right in our country further emphasize what Ford was trying to achieve. Looking at possible Republican contenders for the 2012 presidential election, one would be hard-pressed to find a single person, male or female, who would openly endorse Ford’s views.

Betty Ford defined feminism for a generation. She proved the theory that simply being a powerful woman does not make one a feminist. She used her influence and very nature to advance the belief that women deserve the same freedoms, respect, and accountability as men. She made no apologies for her stances and spoke eloquently and honestly about her opinions. She embraced her self-worth as a woman without compromising her, or her party’s, ideals.

Both sides of the aisle continue to languish in their divisiveness – with issues such as feminism, equal rights and religion being so polarizing as to define one’s political affiliation. Both parties need strong women who believe in and fight for the tenets of their party, without sacrificing the progress that the women before us achieved.

Kris Coyner is an activist for immigration justice and civil rights. She and her partner are raising 1-year-old triplet daughters near Shelton. A member of The Olympian’s Diversity Panel, she can be reached at kriscoyner@gmail.com.

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