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Lifting the cause of women and breast cancer awareness

Former first lady Betty Ford made her mark despite being thrust into role.
/ Source: TODAY

Mrs. Ford is a first lady who used the power of her position. She lifted the cause of women, increased awareness about breast cancer. And still today, is helping all people overcome addiction. She made her mark as first lady, despite that fact that she was put in the position, only by chance and circumstance.

A nation reeling from Watergate and torn by war, suddenly got a new president and a new type of first lady.

Elizabeth Anne Bloomer was born 86 years ago in Chicago. Long before she was a wife, she was a working girl, dancing for the legendary Martha Graham, the former first lady supported herself as a model in New York City.

By the time she married Gerald Ford she was already 30, and a divorcee. 

And because she was schooled by her mother Hortense to always tell the truth, Betty Ford never thought being first lady meant being silent.

Ford: “Why should my husband's job or yours prevent us from being ourselves?"

Curry: “You've been called one of the most outspoken first ladies in our nation's history.”

Ford: “Yeah.  I’m not sure that's a compliment.” (Laughter)

Curry: “You openly discussed amnesty for Vietnam War draft dodgers.  You supported handgun restrictions (and) you called the then recent Roe V. Wade decision a ‘great, great decision.’”

Ford: “I believe that and I’m worried that that will not continue to be a legal thing. That's a woman's privilege (and) it shouldn't be decided by a group of legislators. It’s between her doctor, her husband and her spiritual advisor.”

Curry: “You supported the Equal Rights Amendment.”

Ford: “I did try to get the ERA passed.  I believe in it still.”

Curry: “So he never said to you, ‘Betty, stop it!  Stop saying stuff that might get me in trouble.’ He never said that to you?”

Ford: “But of course not. He knew better than that.”

Curry: “Because what would happen?”

Ford: “Well I’d probably go on saying it. I think every first lady has her place and I just felt it was women's chance, women's time.”

Betty Ford has said she was lying in the hospital, diagnosed with breast cancer just seven weeks after her husband was sworn into office, when she fully realized the power of the woman in the White House. 

She had asked her husband to tell the public the truth about her illness, that she was having a radical mastectomy though at the time, people just didn't talk about breast cancer.

The shock that the first lady had breast cancer convinced thousands of women to get tested, many for the first time.

Ford: “Women who would never, never have gone for a mammogram, now were lining up to have their checkup and that was kind of the beginning of a lot of lives being saved.”

President Ford, now 90, talked about his wife of 55 years, saying her openness was her greatest achievement as first lady, coming as it did at a critical time, when the nation was still healing from Watergate and the Vietnam War.

President Ford: “When we moved into the White House, the public had very great apprehension because of all that happened. So it was a fresh face, a fresh family to move in and to contribute to the healing of the very unhappiness that existed.”

Curry: “And your wife was?”

President Ford: “Very, very important to the healing process.”

Curry: “Because she was so honest?”

President Ford: “It was very helpful because whatever she said, I know it was from the heart.  I knew it was from her good solid background.  You can't do better than that.”

Curry: “Did she advise you when you were president, in the White House?”

President Ford: “She was never hesitant.” (Laughter)

Betty Ford says being first lady is a 24 hour a day volunteer job -- a job, she says fortunately, never really ends.

Ford: “The public always thinks of you in that role. It’s a gift, truly a gift.”

Curry: “And that's what's allowed you to keep doing good works.”

Ford: “I certainly think so.  If you think of any of the first ladies that we have had now, all of them had their different projects and they're all, no matter what their age, still working on them.

For the last 22 years, Betty Ford has been overseeing the work at the center that bears her name after overcoming her own addiction to prescription drugs and alcohol.  So far 60,000 men, women and their children have been helped here.

Curry: “Do you think you would have been able to establish this place, this haven, had it not been for the fact that you had become first lady?”

Ford: “Oh that was a great benefit, yes! It's the same as with breast cancer.  ‘The first lady can have breast cancer? Maybe I could.’ And the same thing with the disease of alcoholism and with addiction.”

Though she could be called an accidental first lady, as her husband became president only after Richard Nixon, Betty Ford will forever been known for using the power of her position to inspire courage and hope to Americans in need.

Ford:  “I'm delighted that I can carry a message. I think that's what we're here on this earth for, to help others and if you can you ought to do it.”

It’s been more than 30 years since, Mrs. Ford left the White House and she still continues her tireless efforts to help others. Her latest endeavor, a new book called “Healing and Hope,” is about six women who overcame their addictions at the Betty Ford Center.