Honor, grace and courage: a tribute to Betty Ford

by Jane Mahoney, PhD, RN, PMHCNS-BC on July 11, 2011 · 1 comment

in stigma

In the evening on July 8 we learned that former First Lady Betty Ford had died at the age of 93. Those of us who were around in the ’70s remember well the impact Mrs. Ford had on the country. She was known for being gracious, elegant, poised and outspoken, characteristics that don’t easily go hand-in-hand. Betty Ford was able to help create a shift in the country’s thinking about a number of issues that were socially taboo at the time by using the power of her position and her unique personal characteristics to compel us to think differently about many social concerns.

Former First Lady Betty Ford

Initially, she showed us how to blend wifely and motherly roles with the feminist movement. At every possible opportunity, she encouraged women to use their voices, communicate their opinions and take a stand. This was a very courageous stance for a First Lady to take in the 1970s. But much bigger challenges lay ahead for Mrs. Ford.

Sharing her story of survival

In 1974, Betty Ford was diagnosed with breast cancer. This was a time when it was still somewhat socially taboo for women to disclose a breast cancer diagnosis, sometimes even to their own family members. For many women, it was a shameful diagnosis. Because of the social stigma around breast cancer, it was considered unbecoming to discuss “female health problems.”

So how did we know that Betty Ford, First Lady of the United States, had a radical mastectomy to treat breast cancer? Because Mrs. Ford herself made this public. Why? She said she was concerned for the health of women, and that by disclosing her own diagnosis and treatment, perhaps more women would participate in breast cancer screening – and that is exactly what happened. The walls of shame and stigma around breast cancer cracked and soon came tumbling down.

Battling addiction

Mrs. Ford also suffered with painful arthritis. She became addicted to painkillers and alcohol, and in 1978, with her family steadfastly at her side, she admitted herself to a treatment facility. In keeping with her honorable approach to life’s difficulties, Betty Ford publicly announced her addiction. This stunned the nation. Mrs. Ford had broken the silence expected of women about such things.

She put the issue of women, drugs and alcohol on the table – actually the kitchen table. Her openness was discussed in homes all over the country at dinner time and when families watched the news together. Yes, there really was a time when people did such things. The walls of shame and stigma about drug and alcohol addiction cracked – but have not come tumbling down – not yet. This wall is strong.

Paying tribute

In tribute to Betty Ford, I believe it is our duty to bring those walls down! We need to do this by developing interventions and programs that are more effective than exist today. We can start by committing to using evidence-based approaches to treatment and applying improvement science and practice-based evidence to continuous advancement and by funding a robust plan of research to break through this debilitating condition. This would be our most enduring tribute to a real American hero, Betty Ford.

Editor’s note: For a related post by another blogger, take a look at “Remembering Betty Ford.” For other blog posts by Dr. Mahoney, check out:

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Vicki Lovin July 20, 2011 at 2:09 pm

Jane, Your tribute to Betty Ford is a call for action. Thank you.

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