Michelle Obama, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Betty Ford: One of these ladies is not quite like the others. It’s not just because she’s the Republican on the list—Ford, who spent only 895 days in the White House, just doesn’t have the same prominence in American cultural memory as the history-making, two-term, and still-prominent Obama, or Roosevelt, who served for 12 years and reshaped the nation’s idea of what a president’s wife could accomplish. So it might come as a slight surprise that despite (or perhaps because of) her lower profile, Betty Ford’s story is by far the best part of Showtime’s new series, The First Lady.
The show, which debuts Sunday, stars Viola Davis as Obama, Gillian Anderson as Roosevelt, and Michelle Pfeiffer as Ford. Despite its subjects’ richness, in charting the lives of the three women at its center, the series treats them with a dull reverence that flattens them into history book heroines rather than bringing them to life. Still, the show’s treatment of Ford shines in a way that the other two first ladies’ storylines just don’t pull off. Eleanor Roosevelt has been portrayed by dozens of actresses across countless films and TV projects, from Annie to Warm Springs. “Michelle Obama” isn’t quite as common an IMDb credit yet, but she’s, you know, very much alive, regularly in the news, and still actively building her own legacy. Outside of the 1987 TV movie The Betty Ford Story—which isn’t exactly streaming on Netflix—Ford hasn’t become a pop culture staple. This means that, unlike the other figures at the heart of The First Lady, the show has the opportunity to do something novel with Betty Ford: Introduce her to a new generation.
Ford was born Elizabeth Bloomer in 1918, and spent her early years training for a career as a dancer. In 1938, she left her hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, to pursue her modern dance dreams with Martha Graham’s New York City-based company. “The idea of a young Midwestern woman striking out on this very independent career in the arts as a dancer,” first ladies expert and Ohio University professor Katherine Jellison told Jezebel. “I would say that most Michiganders of her generation probably thought that was a very daring and outside the box thing for her to do.
Once back home in Michigan, Ford married and divorced one of her local suitors. To this day, she remains one of only two divorcée first ladies. (Florence Harding beat her to being the first.) Ford’s memoirs suggest that her first husband may have been an alcoholic, and he slipped into a diabetic coma just as she was on the verge of serving him divorce papers. When he recovered, a full two years later, she called it quits. According to Lisa McCubbins’ biography of Ford, she’d later call that chapter in her life the “five-year misunderstanding.” Soon after, she married local football hero Gerald Ford. He’d go on to embark on a career in Congress, while she became a political wife and raised the couple’s four children until the Watergate scandal propelled the family into the White House.
In the Showtime series, Ford, by then in her 90s, writes a note to Obama soon after the 2009 inauguration. “First ladies and their teams are often the vanguards of social progress in this country,” Ford’s on-screen letter reads. (It does seem that the real-life Ford sent Obama a congratulatory missive, but I’ve not been able to track down what exactly the note included.) In any case, the idea that the first lady represents the leading edge of American progress, is, well, just wrong. In fact, first ladies are generally held to more regressive standards than other women. In an interview with Jezebel, Connecticut College professor and The Politics of the President’s Wife author MaryAnne Borrelli quoted the historian Lewis Gould, who observed that First Ladies are “a lagging indicator.”
“Social change will happen and about 15 years later, we’ll say it’s OK for First Ladies, too,” Gould noted.
Part of what makes Ford interesting is that, despite rejection of modernity being expected of first ladies, she was outspoken about controversial issues of her era. She was a self-proclaimed feminist who supporter of Roe v. Wade, even as her husband opposed it. (“I think it’s time to bring abortion out of the backwoods and put it in hospitals, where it belongs,” she told Barbara Walters.) She was a vocal proponent of the Equal Rights Amendment, and worked the phones campaigning for the thwarted constitutional measure, calling local state politicians and urging its adoption. Later in life, she spoke about her decision to have a facelift with a candor that would still be noteworthy for a contemporary political figure.
Her frankness could spark controversy, as it did in the aftermath of a notorious 60 Minutes interview she gave in 1975. During that segment, she said that she was “sure [her kids had] all probably tried marijuana,” and that she’d have likely done so herself if she were growing up in the ‘70s. She made a joking innuendo about her and the president’s sex lives, and, when asked what her reaction would be if her then-teenaged daughter told her she was having an affair, she replied that she would “counsel and advise her on the subject, and I’d want to know pretty much about the young man that she was planning to have the affair with; whether it was a worthwhile encounter.”
“Every middle aged woman, I would venture, in 1975 in the US, was talking about all these issues,” said Jellison. “But to have a first lady talk about them startled people.” The backlash was instantaneous, particularly as Ford’s views were increasingly out of step with her party. “When she speaks out on 60 Minutes, this is at a point where a large portion of the Republican Party wants to go in a more culturally conservative way,” said Jellison.
Borrelli told me that after the response to his wife’s interview, “Gerald Ford wrote in his memoir” that he was now “aware of the rising power of the conservative religious movements.”
Ford’s best-known legacy, as the founder of the rehabilitation center that still bears her name, was also very much emblematic of her generation. While in the White House she spoke to the press about the fact that she saw a psychiatrist and took Valium. “I think a lot of women go through this,” she said at one point. “Their husbands have fascinating jobs, their children start to turn into independent people and the women begin to feel useless, empty.”
Her illness was also partially fueled by doctors who over prescribed her powerful drugs, an experience she shared with many other white, middle-class homemakers of the ‘60s. “She is the classic member of the Feminine Mystique generation,” said Jellison. “And, again, that’s why I think many women of her generation found her so relatable. Because they too had married after World War II—of course, in her case, a second marriage—had children, and were living up to that postwar domestic ideal, and then found themselves feeling very empty in doing that.”
However, Ford didn’t always stand up for her beliefs. In 1980, the year Reagan finally won the party’s nomination, the Republicans first made opposition to Roe part of their platform, and Ford stayed quiet. According to McCubbin’s biography, she had planned to attend a pro-ERA march that was staged at that year’s party convention, and even packed a suffragette-white dress for the occasion. Her husband asked her not to attend, and Ford complied.
When she did choose to speak up the effect could be massive. Just a few weeks into her time in the White House, a routine examination revealed a lump in Ford’s breast. It was cancer, and Ford underwent a mastectomy. At the time, the word “breast” was considered too vulgar for polite public speech, and cancer was also highly stigmatized. “Cancer was considered still to be based on germs,” said Borelli. “And so if you had cancer, you were a dirty person.” Ford’s frankness about her illness inspired thousands of women to undergo breast exams, including then-Second Lady Happy Rockefeller, who was diagnosed with the disease just a few weeks after Ford.
Addiction, cancer, controversy—honestly, it’s surprising that it took this long for Betty Ford to play a lead role in a prestige TV drama. “I think the reason, probably, that she was chosen as one of the first ladies to be profiled in the series is because she has a very dramatic story that makes for good television,” said Jellison. “And certainly, we know that’s the case for Mrs. Roosevelt and Mrs. Obama. But I think equally, and I’m going to go out on a limb here, maybe even more so a dramatic story for Betty Ford.”