Michelle Obama and Betty Ford: How One Used Her Power and the Other Still Could


“What is not debatable is that Betty Ford’s tenure as First Lady was the last time in American politics that someone in that role could inspire bi-partisan admiration—even while expressing her own political views.  American politics has become so polarized, and the culture wars so fierce, that First Ladies can only be broadly liked if they suppress their own views on controversial matters. Betty Ford’s passing reminds us of what has been lost in our political culture.” 

While I agree with Carol Joffe “…that [today] First Ladies can only be broadly liked if they suppress their own views on controversial matters,” I’m perplexed at the suggestion that being “broadly liked” is a sufficient standard of review, as well as by Joffe’s apparent assertion that this need for First Ladies to be bland is something new. It isn’t.

Remember Eleanor Roosevelt, please. 

She could have been bland, and, consequently, “broadly liked,” but she wasn’t.  Instead, Roosevelt understood the needs of her times, and the power of the First Lady’s bully pulpit, and chose otherwise.

In fact, every First Lady has the opportunity to define the role. Yes, for Betty Ford, there was Pat Nixon, but there was also Eleanor Roosevelt. 

Fortunately for the rest of us, Betty Ford chose Eleanor Roosevelt.  

As a result of making this choice, today we remember Betty Ford as a political leader of the first American rank: Great political leader, not great First Lady, because she chose, as First Lady, to use her bully pulpit to advocate to make life better for American women, to advocate for nothing less than our equality.

Yes, Betty Ford was fortunate that she was “broadly liked,” notwithstanding her political views, but the fact is that she wouldn’t have done what she did, and said what she said, if she had been worried about being liked. She wasn’t, and so she said what she said, and did what she did, for the rest of us.

Besides, I don’t think the “being broadly liked” standard of review is sufficient to the need in these dark days, if it ever was. Certainly, it wasn’t in Betty Ford’s 1970’s, post-Roe v. Wade America, when we were battling to pass an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to secure our equality.

I repeat:  Fact is, Betty Ford had a choice then, just as Michelle Obama does now.

Yes, childhood obesity and the plight of military families are significant problems that plague America. But they are not our main problems. The main problem today– in Michelle Obama’s First Lady time– is just the same as it was in Betty Ford’s First Lady time: American’s women’s lack of equal access to opportunity.

Yes, it’s a good thing that Michelle Obama is so widely admired, but she could be so much more, especially for the millions of downtrodden American women, including those who lack adequate reproductive health care and access to abortion. Why can’t she be a political leader of the sort First Lady Betty Ford was?   How to think about this on this day when Michelle Obama joins Betty Ford’s family to mourn a First Lady who had American women’s equality and reproductive rights first in her heart, mind and speech all the time?

Rightly so, President Obama is fond of telling us how gifted First Lady Michelle Obama is.

Indeed: She is as well-educated as he is; she is equally compelling as a public speaker; she is equally accomplished professionally; and, when younger, she was as committed as he was to a career devoted to securing equality and social justice.

I first met Michelle Obama twenty years ago when she asked me to join the board of directors of the Chicago chapter of Public Allies.  What a treat it was to hear her speak of her dreams of social justice and equality. I’m missing that Michelle Obama right now.

As I was thinking about Betty Ford’s advocacy for abortion rights, I went back to read the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, rendered when Betty Ford was the spouse of one of the most important Members of the U.S. Congress. It’s easy to imagine Betty and Jerry Ford, who shared the same view on abortion rights, sitting at that suburban Virginia breakfast table, discussing the section of the decision I quote below: 

“This right of privacy, whether it be founded in the Fourteenth Amendment‘s concept of personal liberty and restrictions upon state action, as we feel it is…is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.”

I imagine that Michelle Obama read that same paragraph while at Harvard Law School. I imagine that it resonated with her, just as it did with Betty Ford.  After all, for Michelle Obama, this Fourteenth-Amendment cornerstone of the Roe decision was the very same Fourteenth Amendment that freed her slave ancestors.

I am very grateful for these two inspiring First Ladies, Michelle Obama and Betty Ford. I am very grateful for these two American girls whose heartland families instilled such high ambitions in their daughters. They are both terrific role models for the rest of us, both testaments to the power of working hard and persevering to achieve for oneself and in order to help others.

But it sure would be wonderful if Michelle Obama, First Lady, were able to be like Betty Ford, First Lady, in yet another way:  To be an unabashed advocate for equality for American women, including women who need to choose abortion.

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  • carole-joffe

    Thank-you for such interesting commentary, Rebecca.  I agree that Eleanor Roosevelt was an extraordinary First Lady, who clearly inspired Betty Ford (as she later did Hillary Clinton who famously “channelled” her while in the White House!).  And I agree that “broadly liked” is an inadequate standard of review, and also not the most elegant of word choices on my part. I was trying to convey the idea that by the time of the Reagan presidency,  any Republican First Lady who spoke her real feelings about abortion would have become a total “distraction”, as political junkies say, and would have likely threatened her husband’s political fortunes. 

    However, I do stand by my point about the toxicity of contemporary political culture, a toxicity that simply was not present when either Eleanor Roosevelt or Betty Ford were in the White House, and was just beginning with the CLintons, (a toxicity of course enabled by the rise of 24 hour cable tv, the Internet, etc).  Without calling into question the integrity of any of these three, or of Michelle Obama, the latter faces a very different reality when it comes to being outspoken on controversial issues.  (Try putting “Michelle Obama” and “abortion” into a search engine). Given the phenomonal abuse the Obama family has received, much of a a racist nature, I can’t fasult Michelle Obama for picking her battles carefully.

  • rebecca-sive

    Dear Carol,

    I’m very sympathetic to what President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama have had to deal with.  At the same time, it may be different in character, but I think it’s true that, for instance, FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt also were hated by many and called all kinds of names. Yet, they persevered.

    I guess that’s where  I come out: That we need our Presidents and First Ladies to use every power they’ve got to do what’s right for those who need their help the most.

    Thanks for starting this very important conversation.

    Rebecca

  • arekushieru

    Yet there are noticeable differences (one being more obvious than the other, of course) between the two, dontcha think?