|Karen DeCrow: Betty Ford's GOP fought for women
and their rights
Published: Saturday, August 20, 2011, 5:42 AM Updated: Saturday, August 20, 2011, 11:37 AM
By Karen DeCrow, Contributing columnist
Next Friday is a day to remember in U.S. history.
Courtesy of Karen DeCrow
The first White House meeting with
leaders of the women’s rights movement was hosted by President Gerald Ford and first lady Betty Ford (standing)
in September, 1974. Among the attendees was Karen DeCrow, of Jamesville, (fourth from the left of Gerald Ford).
DeCrow made many trips to the White House. She also was invited by Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
Ninety-one years ago (Aug. 26, 1920), American women got the vote.
A fitting way to mark Aug. 26 this year would be to commemorate the extraordinary life of Betty Ford, who died
July 8 at the age of 93. She was a hero for women and girls, and a role model for men and women alike.
It might also be a fitting time to observe how much the Republican Party has changed since Betty Ford lived in
the White House.
Betty Ford and I were colleagues for years, working together for women's rights in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere
in the country.
Our most memorable time together was at the Republican National Convention in July 1976 in Kansas City.
She was there as first lady, married to President Gerald Ford, who was fending off Ronald Reagan's bid for the
presidential nomination. Ford got it. Reagan was the GOP nominee in 1980.
Betty Ford had an agenda beyond that of being the charming wife, although she was without a doubt one of the most
charming individuals one could meet.
She used her role to actively support the Equal Rights Amendment.
The Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was introduced shortly after women got the vote in 1920. The
ERA text stated: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or
by any State on account of sex."
The Republican Party was the first political party to endorse the ERA in its platform. Betty Ford and her husband's
supporters wanted to keep the ERA in the platform.
In Kansas City, Phyllis Schlafly led a powerful faction of Reagan supporters trying to remove the ERA from the
The battleground over the ERA was the daily meeting of the Platform Committee.
I was at the Kansas City convention as national president of the National Organization for Women. We were supporting
the Fords. Gerald Ford was strong on women's rights and Betty Ford was a leader in the movement. NOW's main contribution
at the convention was keeping the ERA in the platform through our knowledge of rules and procedures.
As I think back to that convention, it is glaring to see how far to the right - away from civil rights and civil
liberties - the party has galloped in 35 short years.
There are moves to permanently deny abortion coverage to low-income women, federal employees and military women
and to effectively end abortion coverage in private employer health plans. There is a push to end funding for Title
X family planning clinics which provide mammograms, pap tests, HIV and STD screening and contraceptives. There
are attempts to dismantle Social Security and push Medicare into a private voucher system.
In 1976, there were ardent Republican supporters of equality between women and men. Betty Ford may have been the
most visible leader, but she was not alone.
Today it is often fashionable for some Republican women to say, "I am a feminist," even when they aren't.
For example, Sarah Palin says in interviews that she is a feminist, although her positions on economic and social
issues show her to be anything but.
When anti-equality politicians call themselves feminists, I am not angry or outraged, I am amused. It is astonishing
that in a few decades feminists have come from being pariahs to setting the agenda.
In the summer of 1976, Kansas City was hot and the hotels were full. Those of us from NOW didn't have much money.
So we were put up by generous hosts. I'll never forget where I slept: on a pullout couch. It had a metal bar in
the middle, making it violently uncomfortable. It was free, so who could complain?
When I think back on that sweltering week, it stands out as one of the joys of my life: the ERA stayed in the platform.
The Ford administration was the first (but not the last) to invite leaders of the women's rights movement to the
White House. We suspected Betty Ford had urged the meetings.
As first lady Betty Ford was in the public eye constantly, and was criticized for everything she did. Fortunately,
she had a good sense of humor.
First lady has been a thankless position. Eleanor Roosevelt was brilliant, and had strong views. She was criticized
for her politics, and for her appearance.
Mrs. Roosevelt was attacked for being too involved in politics. Bess Truman was criticized for being uninvolved
Jackie Kennedy was criticized for decorating the White House. Her predecessors had been assailed for being dowdy;
she was assailed for being fashion-conscious.
Lady Bird Johnson was the perfect wife. The press and public could find nothing to attack her for, so they centered
negatively on her being the "perfect wife."
Patricia Nixon gave up a career to become a political wife. She rose to the pinnacle of glory and then fell to
disgrace because of deeds over which she had neither control nor knowledge. Rosalyn Carter became first lady in
1976, when women were able to take interest in more than flower gardens and table settings. She was under siege
for being intrusive because of her interest in foreign and domestic affairs.
Being first lady is a full-time job. Betty Ford worked full time and should have received a salary. Michelle Obama
works full time and should be paid.
When Nancy Reagan was first lady I had an op-ed piece published in the Washington Post (Aug. 27, 1984), saying
she should be paid. She wrote a gracious thank-you note.
For now, on the anniversary of universal suffrage in the United States, we remember Betty Ford with much respect
and much affection. I wonder if the Republican leadership thinks of her in that way.
Karen DeCrow, an attorney, author and activist from Jamesville, is in the
National Women's Hall of Fame
and writes an occasional column in The Post-Standard.
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