Celebrating First Lady Betty Ford and Her Work for the Equal Rights Amendment

As first lady and wife of a Republican president, Betty Ford carved out a role for herself that included advocating for issues she cared about—including ratification of the ERA.

On Friday, April 5, the United States Post Service (USPS) will issue a commemorative Forever stamp and hold an event to celebrate the life and legacy of Betty Ford, who served as first lady of the United States from 1974 to 1977.  

“We need Republicans to celebrate and honor the legacy of both Betty and Gerald Ford by helping to put the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) into the Constitution,” said former U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York, who for 30 years while in Congress was the lead ERA sponsor. 

Both Betty and Gerald Ford played a major role in the campaigns to put the ERA into the Constitution. In many ways, Betty Ford continued moving forward on securing new legal rights for women where Eleanor Roosevelt left off.  

A statement by the USPS about the release of the Betty Ford commemorative stamp reads:

While the Fords never intended to inhabit the White House, Betty Ford embraced the role, becoming the most politically outspoken first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt and helping mold the position’s modern role.

Throughout her husband’s political career, Mrs. Ford openly fought for women’s rights, often conflicting with the Republican Party’s stances. She campaigned tirelessly for the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have mandated constitutional equality for all Americans, regardless of gender.

The Fords were married in 1948, and he was first elected in 1949 to the House of Representatives as a Republican from Grand Rapids, Mich.

In 1965, Gerald Ford was elected by other Republicans as the House Republican minority leader when the Democrats ruled Congress. He openly fought for the ERA and played an important role for the current ERA to pass Congress.

In 1970, a new class of women lawmakers, including Reps. Martha Griffiths of Michigan and Shirley Chisholm of New York pressed to make the ERA a top legislative priority. They had to overcome the opposition of Rep. Emanuel Celler (D-N.Y.), the powerful chair of the House Judiciary Committee, who had refused to hold a hearing on the ERA for over 30 years.

As the Republican leader, Gerald Ford was instrumental in lining up some of the last signatures for a discharge petition that would require moving the ERA from the Judiciary Committee to the floor of the House of Representatives for a vote.

The ERA passed the House in 1971 and the Senate in 1972 by the required two-thirds vote. At the time, the Republican Party was in favor of the ERA, as were all Republican presidents since it was first introduced in 1923 by Daniel Anthony, a Republican member of Congress from Kansas and the nephew of suffragist Susan B. Anthony, also a Republican.

A year later, Gerald Ford was selected to be vice president by then President Richard Nixon, after Spiro Agnew resigned; he then became president after Nixon resigned in August 1974. 

Betty Ford, now first lady of the United States, took her responsibilities and opportunities seriously. She carved out a role for herself that included advocating for the issues she cared most about—including ratification of the ERA. White House photographer David Kennerly took the iconic picture of Mrs. Ford wearing a huge ERA button with her fingers crossed in early 1975, about nine months after she became first lady. 

First Lady Betty Ford wearing a button in support of ERA ratification on Feb. 25, 1975. (Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library)

Linn’s Stamp News, an American weekly magazine for stamp collectors, recently went back to look at the correspondence at the time and pointed out: 

Congress had passed an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) that would explicitly ban discrimination on the basis of sex and sent it to the states for ratification.

Audaciously, Betty Ford announced her support for the amendment and launched a public campaign to try to win its passage. 

Within a few weeks, the White House mailbox at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington, D.C., received more than 10,000 letters regarding the first lady’s stance. Of those, 7,645 were in favor of the ERA, and 3,165 were opposed. 

Many of the messages were appreciative, some were censorious, and some still bubble with the giddy feminist awakening of the times.

(A selection can be viewed on the website of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum in Michigan.)

Within the selection is a letter dated March 13, 1975, by Ms. Jan Franklin Dahlin of Ithaca, N.Y., who wrote:

“I saw your picture on the front page of our local newspapers wearing an enormous ERA button. I want to tell you how tickled I was to see that picture and how proud I am that you are my First Lady.

But not all were so supportive of Betty Ford lobbying for the ERA. A letter from Donald E. Deuster, a member of the Illinois General Assembly, demanded that she “immediately desist in your long-distance telephone lobby campaign” to some Illinois state senators urging they them to vote for the ERA. His five-page, single-spaced letter goes on to say:

Although I respect your Constitutional rights to express yourself, I question the propriety and wisdom of your using the stature and respect of your position as First Lady of the Land to place long-distance telephone calls from the White House, presumably at taxpayers’ expense, to lobby and agitate for specific action by our State Legislature. …In my opinion, this lobbying activity is demeaning to your position.

In response, a letter went back to Deuster from Press Secretary Sheila Rabb Weidenfeld that stated Mrs. Ford “does plan to continue making telephone calls as she sees fit.” The draft of the letter has a handwritten comment that “she will continue to work and have an interest in the ERA,” likely to have been added by the first lady herself. 

Betty Ford lobbying for support of the Equal Rights Amendment from her desk at the White House. (David Hume Kennerly / Center for Creative Photography / University of Arizona)

Betty Ford entered the debate over abortion during an August 1975 interview for 60 Minutes, in which she stated that Roe v. Wade was a “great, great decision,” a statement contrary to her husband’s voting record in Congress. But during his later life, Gerald Ford would identify as pro-choice.

Betty Ford Makes Calls, Writes Letters and Marches for the ERA

After leaving the White House in January 1977, Betty Ford continued to make ratification of the ERA a priority. She supported the newly formed coalition ERAmerica; spoke at the National Women’s Conference in Houston; and worked for an extension of the ratification deadline, an arbitrary time limit set by Congress and then changed by Congress to June 30, 1982.

When the 1980 National Republican Convention in Detroit was deciding whether to keep the ERA in its platform (until then it had been in the document for several decades), Betty Ford left the convention, and together with the Republican first lady of Michigan, Helen Milliken, joined the National Organization for Women’s (NOW) protest march. Ellie Smeal was the president of NOW at the time, and with Ford and Milliken on either side of her, they marched with some 12,000 people through the streets of Detroit. When the march passed the convention center, people shouted, “Keep the ERA in the platform,” but to no avail.

With one year left for ratification by state legislatures under the newly established timeline, Smeal and the NOW team decided to launch an ERA Countdown Campaign. Smeal had worked with actor Alan Alda when both were members of the National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year. At the time, Alda starred in the top-ranked TV show Mash, was an outspoken supporter of the ERA, and was a likely candidate to be an honorary co-chair the NOW Countdown Campaign. He suggested asking Betty Ford to join, and she quickly accepted.  

“I will never forget the day in 1981 that I asked Betty Ford to be an honorary co-chair with Alan Alda of the Equal Rights Amendment Countdown Campaign. I thought it would be a long, involved process. But she said almost immediately that she would be honored to do so,” remembered Smeal.

ERA Countdown Campaign event with George Stanford Brown, Linda Lavin, Jean Stapleton, Tyne Daly, Betty Ford, Eleanor Smeal, Alan Alda, Valerie Harper and Helen Reddy at an ERA event in the 1980’s. (Ralph Dominguez / MediaPunch via Getty Images)

The campaign spearheaded by NOW was launched in Los Angeles with both Betty Ford and Alan Alda as honorary co-chair surrounded by top celebrities and women’s rights leaders. On the same day, 172 rallies were organized in 42 states. During the final year before the ratification deadline, hundreds of people, including Betty Ford, devoted their lives to passage. She made dozens, if not hundreds, of phone calls (not at taxpayers’ expense), attended meetings and rallies, and regularly conferred on strategies with ERA leaders. 

Immediately after a keynote speech at the National NOW Conference in October 1981, in Washington, D.C., Betty Ford was joined by Lady Bird Johnson and others at a major ERA event at the Lincoln Memorial attended by thousands of supporters.

Eleanor Smeal, Betty Ford and Lady Bird Johnson urge ERA ratification at a Washington, D.C., rally in 1981. (Bettmann Archives / Getty Images)

A series of television ads was developed, including ads featuring Betty Ford, Alda, Smeal, and a host of top celebrities, including George Burns, Ester Rolle, Rita Moreno, Marlo Thomas, Linda Lavin and many more.

In one ERA ad produced in 1981, Betty Ford stood before the camera and said: 

I’ve fought a lot of battles in my life and now I am fighting for the Equal Rights Amendment and I am asking you to fight this battle with me.

“Thirty-five states have ratified the Equal Rights Amendment, but so far this state has not, even though a majority of Republicans and Democrats support the ERA.

“Your state legislators will be voting on the Equal Rights Amendment and if you believe they should vote with the will of the people, now is the time to tell them. Please write to your legislator now.

“Tell them—a vote against the Equal Rights Amendment is a vote against their constituents, 

Tell them—a vote against the Equal Rights Amendment is a vote against you … and a vote against me.

By June 30, the ERA was stalled just three states short of ratification, with supporters pledging, “We’ll Remember Each November” at the ballot box. As Alan Alda said at the Washington, D.C., rally in front of the White House in 1982, “I don’t accept the ERA vote as a loss; we simply haven’t won yet.”

And the next elections were a turning point for women voters. The first time massive public attention was focused on the gender gap—the difference in the percentage of women and the percentage of men voting for a given candidate or supporting a particular party, officeholder or issue—was in 1982, months after the ERA Countdown Campaign shifted its focus to electing pro-ERA state legislators. 

The gender gap appeared first in 1980 elections in favor of the Democrats and has continued in all presidential races since Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party withdrew support for the ERA. However, there was not much media coverage of gender voting difference before and during the 1980 elections.

Once political reporters and pollsters started to take a deeper look at gender politics, initial stories about the gender gap began to surface in 1982 by The Washington Post, The New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Associated Press. The term has been used in media coverage of every election since and sometimes referencing the gender gulf. The voting patterns among women have haunted and hurt Republican candidates over the past 40 years and are continuing to cause havoc through the upcoming elections given strong voter support for the ERA and abortion rights.

Fast Forward to 2020: Ratification by the Required 38 States

Pro-ERA activities continued, with the Nevada legislature ratifying the ERA in 2017. Illinois followed in 2018, in part due to the support by Republican Gov. James Thompson. Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the ERA in 2020, an act that meant the needed three-fourths of state legislatures had approved the following language to be included in the Constitution:

Section 1: Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex. 

Section 2: The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

In April 2023, a newly worded congressional joint resolution was introduced in to put the ERA into the Constitution by Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). House Joint Resolution 25 and Senate Joint Resolution 4 affirm that the ERA has been ratified by the required  three-fourths of the needed state legislatures, which would recognize the ERA as the 28th Amendment to the Constitution, not withstanding any timeline. 

A discharge petition strategy similar to the one used by Martha Griffiths, Shirley Chisholm and Gerald Ford in 1971 is underway in the House of Representatives, with another ERA discharge petition filed in July 2023 by Rep. Pressley. 

Voter support for the ERA is stronger than ever. A poll conducted for Ms. and Feminist Majority Foundation in September 2023 shows that voters are overwhelmingly in support of the ERA. Pollster Celinda Lake calls the ERA “a universal value for Democrats and very strong with Independents, especially Independent women voters.”

In addition, the Ms. poll shows that abortion rights and the Equal Rights Amendment hold great salience in the 2024 election among voters, with threats to democracy and abortion/women’s rights being the second and third top-of-mind issues for all voters after inflation. And 59 percent of voters consider themselves feminists.

The Dobbs Supreme Court decision on abortion is a wake-up call that people can no longer take established privacy rights for granted. Maloney tells audiences again and again, “Without the ERA, women and men are left with a piecemeal approach to equality—and piecemeal isn’t working, not for reproductive rights, women’s health, domestic and sexual violence, or economic equality.” She points out to young women, “I fear Dobbs is just the beginning and never dreamed my daughters would have fewer rights than I did at their age. Already fertility treatments are being attacked and laws like Title IX could be next.”

As the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia stated: “Certainly the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex. The only issue is whether it prohibits it. It doesn’t.”

To start showing support for the ERA, nearly 100,000 people have signed the National ERA Petition launched by Hunter College students in Maloney’s class at the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute. Signers are regularly asking family and friends to join by going to the website Sign4ERA.org. Just a handful of Republican votes will be needed for the current ERA discharge petition in the House to start the process for a floor vote, as was done in 1971. 

“I believe enough women and men are still in the GOP—the Grand Old Party—who will pay tribute to Betty Ford’s legacy and support the ERA,” Maloney predicted.

Upon Betty Ford’s death in 2011, Smeal wrote, “Betty Ford inspired. She made a difference for millions of women. Those of us who were privileged to work with her appreciated and admired her.”

Smeal added, “We miss her now more than ever, as the ERA has a serious chance at becoming the 28th Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

Up next:

U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.


Kathy Bonk is a long-time feminist activist, contributor and advisor to Ms.