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Betty Ford: Champion of Women

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Betty Ford: Champion of Women

Note:  Special thanks to Lisa Anne Penny for contributing her personal photographs and memories of Betty Ford to Malibu Beach Recovery Center’s tribute to the former First Lady and co-founder of the Betty Ford Clinic.


An icon in the addiction and recovery field died when Betty Ford passed away this month. In case not everyone knows her story, Betty Ford became addicted to pain pills in the 1960s after suffering a neck injury and then other physical problems. She also began drinking at social functions that congressional couples were attending, and over the years that abuse escalated into dependence on her part as well.

Thumbnail image for Lisa Penny and Betty Ford.jpeg

In 1978, a year after she and former President Ford had left the White House, the Ford family held an intervention and confronted her about her drinking. She entered rehab and then co-founded the famous Betty Ford Center. A site containing biographies of first ladies says this about the center:

“Although often identified in the media by the roster of famous people who have sought recovery from chemical dependency there, a primary focus of its programs is an emphasis on strongly supporting women, for whom 50 percent of the space is always reserved. [The Betty Ford Center] also offers programs for the entire family system affected by addiction with support and education in a five-day Family Program. The Children’s Program is for children ages 7 to 12 who are not themselves addicted, but are living with chemically dependent family members.”

Betty Ford highlighted women in a book she wrote related to her work there:  “Healing and Hope: Six Women from the Betty Ford Center Share Their Powerful Journeys of Addiction and Recovery.”

In a conversation with Joan, Kathy Leigh Willis, former executive director of MBRC who has been involved in treatment for more than 30 years recalled that before Betty Ford, 90% of those who went to rehab were men. This former first lady changed all that, Willis noted. 

Lisa Anne Penny, whose father Don Penny was Gerald Ford’s Director of Communications, worked for MBRC as a therapist, and has retained close ties to the treatment center.  

“When my dad worked for the President at the White House, Mrs. Ford used to baby sit me (before she was sober).  Years later, when I struggled with drugs, Mrs. Ford’s recovery was very much my inspiration.   In 2005, my father and I (now 1-1/2 years sober) went to visit President and Mrs. Ford.   As a parent, I was interested in the children’s program at the Betty Ford Center and became very aligned with their sources and methods through my introduction to Jerry Moe’s work.

Lisa and Betty Ford 2.jpeg“Mrs. Ford was terrific and the (former) President was having a good day; we had a wonderful visit knowing deep down that it would likely be the last time we saw President Ford alive. I spoke with the President and Mrs. Ford about my belief that parents in recovery need to get the education, skills and support to help heal their families and “sober parent” their children. I shared that it was my mission to create a sober “Mommy & Me” prograThumbnail image for The Pennys and the Fords.jpegm.  They were both very supportive of my dream, which I was later given the opportunity to develop for the Clare Foundation.  As a child Mrs. Ford’s personal impact on my life was very strong.  When I got sober I understood she had a similar impact on lives of millions she never even met.”

Eleanor Smeal, president of Ms. Magazine and former president of NOW, wrote about Betty Ford’s efforts on gaining  support for the ERA Amendment in the 1980s on a CNN opinion page. What she said applies to her wanting to help others with addiction and recovery as well:

She inspired. She made a difference for millions of women. Those of us who were privileged to work with her appreciated and admired her. We will miss her.

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