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First lady Betty Ford marked a lot of firsts.

She was the first woman to share the details of her mastectomy via photographs and public statements, helping to open a national conversation about breast cancer. She was the first president's wife to hold a news conference, establishing the role of first lady as a serious political platform. She was the first and only first lady to move into the White House after a president resigned, opening a new chapter in American history.

But until last year, when Lisa McCubbin published Betty Ford: First Lady, Women's Advocate, Survivor, Trailblazer, there were no in-depth biographies devoted to her life.

"I thought the biography was well overdue," Ford's daughter, Susan Ford Bales, said.

Ford Bales and McCubbin spoke about Betty Ford's history and contributions to the American people on Wednesday at the Clinton Presidential Center.

Throughout her years as first lady, Ford, wife of President Gerald Ford, became known as a woman who would answer questions candidly.

McCubbin quoted Ford as saying, "Well if you ask me a question, I have to be honest with you."

She created a national dialogue about issues including breast cancer, abortion, women's rights and addiction.

In a 1975 60 Minutes interview, Ford called it "the best thing in the world when the Supreme Court voted to legalize abortion and, in my words, to bring it out of the backwoods and put it in the hospitals where it belongs." She also vigorously advocated for the Equal Rights Amendment.

Through her honesty about her diagnosis with breast cancer, Ford spurred funding and research into the disease.

"When you look at the numbers of people that she has affected so positively from breast cancer awareness, she sparked that conversation by being open to talking about it in 1974," McCubbin said. "When you couldn't say the word 'breast' on television, when people whispered about cancer, and all of the sudden people started talking about it, and that's when funding for research started. So how many women's lives have been saved because of that? You can't even count that."

Ford also overcame an addiction to prescription medications. She remained vocal about that struggle and opened the Betty Ford Center, dedicated to treating people with substance-abuse problems.

McCubbin's book explores those topics, supplementing in-depth interviews with research that included notebooks from Ford's early life as a dancer.

Ford Bales said the book allows more people to learn about Ford's life and achievements.

"It's a matter of connecting a younger, newer generation that wasn't alive when she was the first lady," Ford Bales said.

Samantha Sheffield, a student at the Clinton School of Public Service, attended the event. Sheffield said that before Wednesday, she didn't know about Betty Ford's passion for women's rights.

"She's a good example to young women of how to stay true to who you are," Sheffield said about Ford.

It is important for women to continue striving toward equality, Ford Bales said.

"She was talking about this 44 years ago, and here we still sit with the same issue, and frankly I almost feel like we've gone backwards recently even in this arena," said Stephanie Streett, the executive director of the Clinton Foundation.

Ford Bales said the book is especially important in light of the current #MeToo movement, circling sexual assault and consent, as Ford was such a champion for women.

"My mother was a big promoter of women, and I think she would've been a supporter of #MeToo," Ford Bales said.

McCubbin said Ford should serve as an empowering reminder of potential.

"And really it's an inspiring story," McCubbin said. "It's a sense of empowerment to tell people there was this young girl, ordinary girl, from Michigan, and look how life turned out, and she had some setbacks along the way, and yet she was resilient and strong and believed in herself and had a strong, supportive family and loving husband. It's a great love story as well with a little bit of history."

Metro on 03/14/2019

Print Headline: Speakers hail ex-first lady Ford as trailblazer

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