Remarks Before Participants in Homemaking and Identity Conference, (26 September 1975) Washington, D.C.
Described as a “groundbreaking First Lady,” Elizabeth Anne “Betty” Boomer Ford is remembered as an advocate for women’s rights, specifically her work on the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).1 During her time as first lady (1974-1977), Ford used her personal experiences to spread awareness on a variety of issues, including substance abuse, breast cancer, and her dual roles as both mother and activist. As a mother of four, she understood the effort it took to be a homemaker but she also used her background as an opportunity to discuss equal rights for women and to advocate for placing more women in senior government positions.2 Not all women, however, supported her work for women’s liberation. In fact, a group called “Stop ERA” disapproved of Ford’s advocacy. The group, comprised largely of women, claimed that she “will be remembered as the unelected First Lady who pressured second-rate manhood on American women.”3 The American people had a love-hate relationship with her. She was called the “most controversial—and popular—First Lady since Eleanor Roosevelt.”4 She inspired the first march to be held in protest of a first lady yet others heralded her activism on behalf of women.5 Such reactions epitomized the tension in the 1970s between growing commitments to feminism and ongoing commitments to traditional roles for women.6
This tension explains why Ford was perceived as both radical and traditional. She “gained popularity and notoriety as a non-traditional advocate for women’s liberation,” yet “most of her activities fell well within the realm of women’s traditional spheres of influence—the family, health, helping one’s husband, and women’s concerns.”7 In an attempt to garner support from conservative women, Ford addressed the Homemaking and Identity conference with her speech on September 26, 1975.8 At this White House conference, Ford received the “Outstanding Homemaker Award.”9 Government scholar MaryAnne Borrelli explains that Ford’s presence at the conference was intended to showcase her qualities as an assertive, activist wife and “extend an olive branch to those who saw her feminism as dismissive of women whose lives were centered in the private sphere.”10 Her rhetoric furthered a belief that women should unite over self-awareness and self-realization, regardless of whether they spent most of their lives in the private or public sphere.11
Ford reiterated her arguments from the Homemaking and Identity Conference in an August 1976 issue of Good Housekeeping. In her interview with Winzola McLendon, Ford argued, “We have to take the ‘just’ out of ‘just a housewife’ and show our pride in having made the home and family our life’s work.”12 She preferred the term “homemaker” over “housewife,” explaining that “Homemakers are the backbone of our society.”13 Ford also used this interview as an opportunity to correct conservative women’s perception of her as anti-homemaking. To her, the home was important because “Family culture is the very beginning of everything.” She made clear that she only disliked having to do the housework and childrearing alone.14 Additionally, she denounced a study from the Social Security’s Office of Research and Statistics that suggested a homemaker’s salary would equate to $5,750 if converted to a monetary value. Ford instead argued that homemakers deserved at least $30,000 annually.15
Ford supported all types of roles for women, as long as they had choice and agency over their decisions. Along with homemakers and working mothers, she also advocated for women who did not want children, affirming that “There are women who can have fulfilling lives without being mothers.”16 Ford thus helped shift cultural discourse about women’s roles by emphasizing “choice,” a key theme in second-wave feminism. She believed women should be free to choose to be a homemaker, to work outside the home, or to embrace both roles. Ford’s support of women’s career choices made her both a “political liability” and one of the country’s “Most Admired Women.”17
- National Women’s Hall of Fame, “Betty Ford,” Women of the Hall, n.d., https://www.womenofthehall.org/inductee/betty-ford/.
- “Ford and Women’s Lib,” Detroit News, February 14, 1975, 19-20.
- “A Dozen Who Made a Difference,” Time: Women of the Year, January 5, 1976, 19.
- Leesa E. Tobin, “Betty Ford as First Lady: A Woman for Women,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 20, no. 4 (1990): 761.
- Ibid., 765.
- Photographs of Ford at the Homemaking and Identity Conference Reception can be found at https://www.fordlibrarymuseum.gov/library/whphotos/A6629_NLGRF.jpg. She is photographed with Barbara Resnick, Elizabeth Beall, and Jinx Melia.
- The catalog of White House photographs mentioned Ford’s award. Details can be found at “White House Photographs,” Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library, April 16, 2015, https://www.fordlibrarymuseum.gov/library/whphotos/19750926whpo.pdf, 6-7.
- MaryAnne Borrelli, The Politics of the President’s Wife (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2011), 123.
- The transcript of Ford’s interview with Winzola McLendon for the August 1976 issue of Good Housekeeping can be found at: “Betty Ford and the Value of the Homemaker,” Good Housekeeping, January 27, 2014, http://www.goodhousekeeping.com/life/inspirational-stories/interviews/a19036/betty-ford-interview/.
- Rick Perlstein, “Betty Ford, Pioneer,” New York Times, July 11, 2011, www.nytimes.com/2011/07/12/opinion/12Perlstein.html?mtrref=www.google.com&assetType=opinion.