Family  /  Biography

First Lady In Motion

Betty Ford and the public eye.

The young Gerald Ford was an insurgent, an outsider running for Congress against long-serving incumbent Bartel Jonkman. In her new role as a potential partner of a rising political star, both Betty’s dancing career and her divorce were problematic. With the conservative voters of Grand Rapids in mind, Gerald and Betty waited until he’d triumphed in the 1948 Republican primary before they wed.

The next twenty-five years were complicated ones. The couple was young and attractive, faces the post-New Deal Republican Party wanted to put forward. Betty modeled for charity fashion shows and photographs and urged fellow Republican Congressional wives to do the same. She sent her daughter Susan to dance lessons – modern ones. At the same time, she struggled. Betty lived in an era awash with alcohol and a Washington, D.C. famous for its alcoholics. She was the daughter and sister of alcoholics; perhaps it is no surprise she became one too. This addiction would be complicated (after 1964) by a prescription pill addiction, and in 1965 by a nervous breakdown that led to weekly meetings with a psychiatrist.

In 1972, Gerald told Betty that he was going to retire from the House of Representatives after his term ended in 1974. But a year later, after an unprecedented scandal brought down Vice-President Agnew and President Nixon appointed Gerald Vice-President, Betty was Second Lady. And a year after that, after Watergate forced Nixon’s resignation, Betty Ford was the First Lady of the United States of America.

Second Lady, and then First Lady, Betty Ford, took to the stage in ways unlike her predecessors. She was a champion of the arts and the disabled, an articulate advocate for women’s rights in issues ranging from abortion to the Equal Rights Amendment, a figure who deliberately hearkened back to Eleanor Roosevelt a generation before.

And she danced.

She did the Bump in the White House (raising the eyebrows of conservatives as much as her endorsement of Roe). She lobbied her husband to award a Presidential Medal of Freedom to Martha Graham. In 1975, she joined a Chinese dance troupe as they performed for the Fords in Beijing, earning more attention from the press than her husband did on that trip. On August 11, 1976, she told a group of dancers at a Duke Ellington tribute that she still danced “when nobody’s looking.”