Carol Landau, PhD - Remembering a Pioneer of Women's Health: In Praise of Betty Ford
Betty Ford died two weeks ago. We should acknowledge the enormous impact she had on improving women’s health. By her example, Betty Ford reduced the stigma and isolation of women with breast cancer as well as women and men struggling with addiction. In addition, she provided a role model of a woman who could be outspoken, graceful and funny.
In this post-Oprah era, it may be difficult to imagine the lonely and hidden lives of women coping with breast cancer in the 1970s. They could speak only in a whisper. This was especially true for those women who had undergone mastectomies. So in addition to dealing with the trauma of cancer and disfigurement from radical mastectomies, women with breast cancer women were often embarrassed and lonely. Then in 1974, Betty Ford revealed her breast cancer and mastectomy. She acknowledged that had to cope with self-consciousness afterward, commenting that she knew people speculated about which of her breasts had been removed. This closely watched First Lady chose to reveal an intensely private matter that, along with other pioneers like Betty Rollins, the television journalist and author of First You Cry, sparked the breast cancer awareness movement. After Betty Ford’s discussion of breast cancer, the number of women who performed breast self exams rose dramatically. Today’s support groups, road races, foundations and numerous pink ribbon activities are all results of her activism.
Betty Ford’s impact on the treatment of addiction was even more impressive. Again, now we have substance abuse oriented reality shows and “go to Betty Ford” is a common expression. Years ago, if breast cancer was seen as a private and sensitive topic, substance abuse in women was seen as shameful and a moral failure. Mothers, in particular were afraid of acknowledging addiction, because of the social opprobrium. In contrast, Betty Ford and her family provided a positive narrative of the natural history of addiction, the power of intervention, and the necessity for direct but caring treatment. And they helped to establish the Betty Ford Centerin Rancho Mirage, California.
An outspoken advocate for women’s rights, Betty Fordalso lobbied in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment, commented on the need for women on the Supreme Court and expressed her pro-choice opinions even when they were in opposition to many members if the Republican party. She maintained her positions and her husband supported her, despite massive pressure from other Republicans to take a quiet, purely supportive role. Some even called for her “resignation.” Throughout it all, Betty Ford maintained her candor and her colorful style, providing generations of women with an example of freedom for self-expression.
First Lady. Survivor. Women’s Health Activist. Philanthropist. Betty Ford was, indeed, a trailblazer.
Carol Landau, Ph.D.
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