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Her feisty character and other reasons to remember Michigan's only First Lady

Patricia Hill Burnett, who was famous back in the 1970s as sort of the quintessential Republican feminist, will be 94 in a few months.

She is still defiantly pro-Equal Rights Amendment, pro-choice, and on economic issues, Republican to the core.

She was runner-up to Miss America 72 years ago, and went on to become both Michigan’s unofficial state portrait painter and the woman who started the state chapter of NOW, the National Organization for Women.

Comfortably wealthy, she always dresses and talks, as Detroit News columnist Laura Berman says today, “like a local, more highly educated version of Zsa Zsa Gabor.”

I went to see her earlier this year when she was recovering from a brief illness, and she told me that she felt sad that many young women did not want to be called feminists any more.

She was also sad that younger women didn’t know anything about Betty Ford.

I was struck by that, because when Michigan’s only First Lady was in the White House, people thought she would be impossible to forget. This country was reeling from the Watergate scandal when her husband, former Grand Rapids congressman Gerald Ford, became President 40 years ago this summer.

Before her time, Presidents’ wives had been mostly distant ceremonial creatures. Jackie Kennedy had been a cultural idol, but you could no more imagine having a normal conversation with her than you could with the Queen.

Betty Ford changed all that.

"[Betty Ford] was more refreshingly real than any other president's spouse, before or since. I wonder if we'll ever see anyone like her again."

She was a normal human being, who was interviewed on shows like 60 Minutes to talk candidly about how she would feel if her kids tried marijuana or had affairs.

Incredibly open and feisty, she said that if she had been asked about her sex life with the President, she would have said “as often as possible.” When she had to have a mastectomy she talked openly about that too.

Her openness led to a flood of women seeking mammograms for the first time, something that probably saved many lives. Later, she would be candid about her battle with alcoholism.

When she left the White House after less than three years, the New York Times speculated that “her impact on American culture may be far wider and more lasting than her husband’s.”

That may have been true. But as time and the 24-hour-news cycle ground on, Betty Ford herself was largely forgotten.

She died at age 93, three years ago today.

Well, both these pioneering feminists will have another moment in the sun today.

Patricia Burnett's portrait of Betty Ford.
Credit Ford Presidential Library
Patricia Burnett's portrait of Betty Ford.

Patricia Burnett has donated her original portrait of Betty Ford to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum in Ann Arbor, and it will be unveiled at a ceremony this afternoon.

Elaine Didier, director of both the library and the Ford museum in Grand Rapids, told me she was absolutely thrilled to have the painting, which is, in my opinion, considerably nicer than the official White House portrait of Betty Ford.

Ford was, in many ways, a woman of her times, who unhesitatingly gave up her career when she had children. But she was more refreshingly real than any other president’s spouse, before or since. I wonder if we’ll ever see anyone like her again. 

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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