Did Betty Ford's Feminist Frustration Contribute To Her Alcoholism?


PBS aired the documentary Betty Ford: The Real Deal last night. The first lady — who, in 1973 publicly identified as a feminist — said she turned to booze when losing her identity in housewifery caused depression.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the writers of Mad Men loosely based the character of Betty Draper on Betty Ford. Both women had been fashion models living in New York City before they traded in their independence to settle down in a post-WW II suburban lifestyle to raise families and create homes for their husbands. Just like Draper is depicted on the show, Ford said that she felt as though her identity was lost in her new and limiting role as a wife and a mother. She began drinking to deal with the depression, and continued to take pain meds she’d been prescribed for a pinched nerve in the early ’60s.

The lack of fulfillment felt by these two Bettys mirrors that of the women profiled in the book of another Betty: Betty Friedan’s seminal The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963, which argues that women are victims of a social structure that dictated that the importance and meaning of their lives be identified through their husbands and children.

In the documentary, Ford says that once her husband became Vice President, and then later President, she had a podium and an audience, and she took the opportunity to unleash the voice within now that there were people listening. She says, “I was amazed that I was this important person.”

Ford worked to ratify the ERA and, after being diagnosed with breast cancer, was open about her disease in a way and at a time that many women weren’t; in fact, she became an activist for breast exams and early detection.

In this clip, she speaks candidly about premarital sex and being pro-choice.

After her husband lost the election in 1976, and she no longer had such a public platform, depression set in again and her addictions became worse, until her family staged an intervention and she sought treatment in 1978.

Interestingly, when she established the Betty Ford Center in 1982, she insisted upon gender-specific treatment for addictions, because she noticed that women were able to speak more openly about their problems when men weren’t in the room.

Betty Ford: The Real Deal [PBS]

Related: The Feminine Mystique

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