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Former First Lady and Women's Rights Advocate: Betty Ford

Zoë Barth-Werb,
Women's Rights Project
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July 12, 2011

On Friday, Betty Ford died at the age of 93. As first lady, she was best known for her outspoken nature and willingness to voice an often controversial opinion on any number of hot-button issues. A Midwesterner who never cared much for political life, it hardly occurred to her that she should only publicly state her opinion when it aligned with her husband’s views or the GOP platform.

Betty Ford was a tireless advocate for women’s rights. Civil liberties supporters often cite her work on the Equal Rights Amendment, which was designed to grant women full legal rights under the Constitution. While it ultimately failed, Ford’s dedication was unquestionable. She continued to fight for it past her short term as first lady. When debate opened on removing the ERA from the GOP platform at the 1980 Republican National Convention, Ford walked out of the convention to join the National Organization for Women’s protest.

Ford understood the particular importance of equal employment rights to American women. She often lobbied her husband to hire more women in influential government positions. More publicly, Betty Ford supported equal pay for equal work referring to it as “the most basic issue” at the 1975 International Women’s Year Conference.

Born before women’s suffrage, Ford understood what too many of us fail to: without equal employment rights enshrined through the law, true equality will continue to elude us. Too many women face systematic pay discrimination to allow outdated stereotypes about women’s economic dependence on men to affect women’s salaries. Thirty-six years after Betty Ford made her simple case for equality heard at the International Women’s Year Conference, too many women are still paid less than men.

Throughout her life, Betty Ford showed a remarkable understanding of the challenges of gender discrimination. In 1975, she said, “this year is not the time to cheer the visible few, but to work for the invisible many, whose lives are still restricted by custom and code.”

Unfortunately, her words are still relevant today.

Photo: Courtesy Gerald R. Ford Library

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