Looking back, you might call Betty Ford the forthright First Lady. She had a lifetime of speaking about forbidden topics, and very personal ones. And in the eyes of many, it was her decision to speak openly about her breast cancer that made it clear she was a speaker of substance. From the Miller Center at the University of Virginia:
She wore a mood ring and pantsuits. She liked disco and danced the hustle. She was pro-choice, pro-ERA, and pro-women in general. She had been divorced, seen a psychiatrist, and been diagnosed with breast cancer. In many ways, Betty Ford was like a lot of other American women. But unlike many of her predecessors as First Lady, Betty Ford used her position to focus attention on the issues important to her, discussing them candidly in public. In so doing, she became one of the most outspoken First Ladies in American history.Ford's credibility stemmed from two approaches she took to her public speaking: She wasn't afraid to express an opinion different from her husband's views, even when he was President, and she made decisions to use her public role to speak in behalf of other women, even when the issues was extremely personal. After her 1974 diagnosis with breast cancer and a subsequent mastectomy, Ford gave many interviews about her cancer and in 1975, while she was First Lady, delivered a major address to the American Cancer Society that is remarkable in many respects. Here's what you can learn from this famous speech:
- Use plain, forthright language when you're addressing the unspeakable: Cancer of any kind was not openly discussed in the 1970s by anyone, let alone a First Lady. Yet this speech was one of the first to not only discuss it publicly, but do so in language anyone could understand. Here, she speaks about her mastectomy: "It isn't vanity to worry about disfigurement. It is an honest concern. I started wearing low-cut dresses as soon as the scar healed, and my worries about my appearance are now just the normal ones of staying slim and keeping my hair kempt and the make-up in order. When I asked myself whether I would rather lose a right arm or a breast, I decided I would rather have lost a breast."
- Simple language helps your speech work for the ages: I do a lot of communications consulting with cancer experts, and find this speech's simplicity a telling example of what clarity can bring to a complex topic. You could give this speech again this week, and it would still be clear and relevant, sticking as it does to universal themes and simple words.
- Don't shy from humor when addressing a tough topic: Ford opened with a wry twist on the tired speaker intro with "I'm very glad to be here tonight, and that is not a line borrowed from someone." And she followed up with the details of her prognosis, just what everyone likely wanted to know.
- Share the emotions to which we can all relate: Ford devoted almost as much space in this speech to the emotional aspects of a cancer diagnosis as the physical ones, including the shock and surprise her family felt: "The malignancy was something my husband never expected, and he couldn't believe it was happening to me. The whole family felt that way. I think their surprise was a very natural reaction, because one day I appeared to be fine and the next day I was in the hospital for a mastectomy." Professionals and patients alike could relate to her words.
Ford, who is now 93, turned out to be a long-term survivor of her cancer. Many think this speech set in motion a level of interest, activity and concern about cancer that continues today; in the wake of this speech, women worldwide sought out treatment and preventive mammograms, in some cases overwhelming local cancer centers with thousands of calls. More importantly, this speech demonstrated the power of speaking publicly, making cancer commonly discussed rather than taboo--a strong legacy for any speaker to claim.
Ford's habit of speaking frankly about her personal life led to many more disclosures and political statements. You can find more at the Ford presidential library and in this research by doctoral student Melody Lehn about Ford's public speaking on the Equal Rights Amendment. Here's later video of Ford talking about her family's intervention regarding her substance abuse, an episode that led her to found the Betty Ford Clinic:
(Photo of Betty Ford touring a breast cancer center courtesy of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library)