Wife? Mother? First Lady? Cancer survivor? Activist for women’s issues? Substance abuse prevention trailblazer?

All of those descriptions fit the woman whose death touched so many people, including some too young to know her in the midst of the public phase of her life.

But one element was largely overlooked in the media coverage touched off by her death on July 8 at age 93: Betty Ford was a Junior Leaguer, through and through, for most of her life.

Raised in Grand Rapids, Elizabeth Ann Bloomer became a member of the Junior League of Grand Rapids as a young woman.  While her life took away from Grand Rapids, and she lived for many years in California after she and her husband Gerald Ford left the White House in 1977, she remained an Honorary Sustainer in JLGR until her death and helped the League celebrate its 50th anniversary in 1975.

Betty Bloomer before she became Betty Ford
Betty Ford, then still known as Betty Bloomer, third from left dancing in the Junior League of Grand Rapids' 1936 musical, Merry Go Round

There have been other Junior Leaguers who went on to become First Ladies – Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush and Laura Bush among them. But perhaps the First Lady whose career, both in politics and outside of it, most resembled Betty Ford’s was Eleanor Roosevelt, a close friend of Mary Harriman and one of the earliest members of The Junior League.

While a strong supporter of her husband’s career, Betty Ford was also not afraid to go against the base in her own party, even from the White House. So it was with her support of the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion rights and pay equity for women.

Betty Ford in 1976 with then Junior League of Grand Rapids President, Gretchen Chamberlain
Betty Ford in 1976 with then Junior League of Grand Rapids President, Gretchen Chamberlain

She also stepped out of the shadows of personal trauma to create lasting legacies in breast cancer prevention and addiction treatment. Her successful recovery from breast cancer in 1974 led to the formation of the Betty Ford Breast Care Services at Spectrum Health, a Grand Rapids-based nonprofit healthcare provider. A painful recovery from the breast cancer also left her addicted to alcohol and painkillers. But her success in overcome her addictions inspired her to create the Betty Ford Center for the treatment of chemical dependency in Rancho Mirage, California.

And there were many more activities, achievements and honors long after the White House years, until ill health slowed her down in the last decade of her life.

So that was Betty Ford.  A complex woman, but one of many achievements. And not afraid to speak her mind!

The Junior League of Grand Rapids, in honoring Mrs. Ford, said:

The Junior League of Grand Rapids will continue to celebrate her memory annually with the Betty Ford Award presented at our Annual Meeting in June to a deserving Sustainer. This award recognizes a prominent sustaining member who continues to impact our community in a positive and influential way. We would like to extend an opportunity for all our members and the community to contribute to a special collection that will be presented to the Junior League Endowment Fund through memorial contributions in honor of Betty Ford. Your donation will continue to support the many women’s issues that she fought for throughout her years as a JLGR member and beyond.