Today, March 8, 2012 we join women across the country – and across the globe – in celebration International Women’s Day. Here at Insiders Health we have chosen three influential women to recognize. Each of these women, in her own way, has contributed to standing up for women’s rights: physically, mentally, and emotionally. Join us as we highlight the works of Jean Kilbourne, Somaly Mam and Betty Ford.
Betty Ford: If you’re part of the younger generation, you might only recognize that name from the latest celebrity who rode out their detox at the notable Betty Ford Center: Lindsay Lohan, Keith Urban, Kelsey Grammer (you know, the ex-husband of RHOBH Camille?). . . just to name a few.
But, if you’re part of my generation (or older) you know that name encompasses a crazy amount of respect in the realm of women’s “forward movement” over the past few decades.
In fact, when my colleagues and I were asked to choose a woman of influence to write about, I could have easily gone the route of some of the more “popular” options . . . Margaret Sanger, anyone?
But I truly believe that Betty Ford’s understated influence on women’s lives is more than worthy of tribute.
Becoming the First Lady
Born Elizabeth Anne Bloomer in Chicago, Betty may have never imagined the path her life would take. A dancer, model, and divorcee at age 29; she met future President Gerald Ford when she was in the prime of her life. They married, and three children and a Presidency later, she was able to exercise her influence in a number of ways via the title of First Lady.
Now, as you know, the First Lady of the United States of America is often viewed like the Queen of England. She’s revered as a figurehead - as part of the “Presidential Royalty,” so to speak; but she has no “real” power when it comes to politics. Or some would say, anyway. I disagree. First Ladies past and present have exercised significant leverage when it comes to affecting public policy.
And let’s be honest; when it comes to social or cultural influence the First Lady has quite a bit of pull.
Which brings us to Mrs. Ford.
The Beginning of the “Boobie” Movement?
1974 was still early for people to talk openly about cancer in general, but especially the kind that featured a traditionally “sexual” female organ. People were still whispering the word cancer . . . much less breast cancer.
So when the First Lady of the U.S. . . . wife of the President . . . the “Queen” . . . opened the door for discussion on the topic; well, that was a relatively big step. Sure, people may have been talking about it, but it’s a bit different for the First Lady to share her story with millions of Americans than Aunt Kathy sharing hushed tales of a double mastectomy in the corner of your mom’s living room at Thanksgiving dinner.
Can you imagine the new-found confidence women of the day gained? Acceptance instead of shame? Perhaps some sort of understanding and compassion, rather than embarrassment and fear of judgment?
Ford herself recognized the impact she could have on women’s lives, simply by talking about the tragic ordeal that she had to endure . . . and came out alive on the other side. "Maybe if I, as First Lady, could talk about it candidly and without embarrassment, many other people would be able to as well."
And boy, have they since. From the billions of dollars raised by groups and charities such as Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure and the Avon Walk, to movements like the somewhat controversial “I Heart Boobies” campaign . . . people are talking. Hell, we even get 300-pound National Football League players to wear pink on their uniforms during the month of October.
Can all of this discourse and action be attributed to Ford? Of course not. Other factors – and people - were at play. But she certainly was instrumental in getting the discussion going.
Alcohol, Drugs and Rock n’ Roll
Well, maybe not so much the Rock n’ Roll . . . but certainly the drugs and alcohol were a part of another way Ford affected the lives of women across the country.
Perhaps it’s what she’s most known for . . . the legacy she left that, as mentioned above, spans the generations: The Betty Ford Center.
I’m sure it wasn’t easy. I mean, talk about a no-no when it comes to First Lady etiquette! Not only was the former presidential wife addicted to pills and alcohol, but she talked freely about it.
It’s no secret that there’s a shame in addiction, but it seems that shame is felt even more so by the female sex. Even to this day there’s the mindset that men are the breadwinners, the fathers, the pillars of the family unit. So somehow it’s more OK for them to have one drink to many, or turn to that Oxy prescription to “numb the pain.” It’s understandable, right? A way of coping with all that stress?
On the flipside, women were seen as the weaker sex . . . and while it was no wonder they’d succumb to addiction being so, it was also less acceptable than if their partner had done the same.
And back in the day, addiction – like breast cancer, in a different sense – was not to be discussed openly and honestly.
Some of these stereotypes still exist today . . . but thankfully they’re not as blatant. Brooke Mueller has just as much right to suffer from addiction as her baby-daddy Charlie Sheen – and she can even seek help for it without too much kerfuffle.
Now we not only have treatment centers for drug and alcohol addiction, but we have places where women can turn to for other addictions and conditions that plague them . . . sex addiction, anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating disorder, and more.
Some of that is thanks to good ol’ Betty.
So while yes, there are many influential women of the world who deserve to be revered today, on International Women’s Day, my heart lies with Betty Ford.