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Betty Ford, champion of women's rights

By Eleanor Smeal, Special to CNN
Eleanor Smeal and former first lady Betty Ford appear at a 1981 countdown rally for the Equal Rights Amendment in Washington.
Eleanor Smeal and former first lady Betty Ford appear at a 1981 countdown rally for the Equal Rights Amendment in Washington.
  • Eleanor Smeal says Betty Ford quickly agreed to help push for Equal Rights Amendment in 1981
  • Smeal says Ford was outspoken in support for the ERA and also for abortion rights
  • She says women supported women's rights irrespective of party in late '70s and early '80s
  • Smeal: Ford was a trouper -- courageous, matter-of-fact and connected with audiences

Editor's note: Eleanor Smeal is the president of Feminist Majority Foundation/publisher of Ms. magazine and a former president of the National Organization for Women.

(CNN) -- 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.

At the time Betty Ford, the wife of former President Gerald Ford, was one of the most admired women in the United States. She also was completely unpretentious. If she could help women win full equal rights with men under the U.S. Constitution, Betty Ford wanted to give it her all.

For readers too young to remember, the drive for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution was massive in 1981. Congress and the state legislatures of 35 states had ratified the ERA. We needed the legislatures of 38 or three-fourths of the states to approve the amendment.

In 1981, we needed to win three more states by June 30, 1982. As Alda said at the final rally in 1982, "I don't accept the ERA vote as a loss; we simply haven't won yet." (The ERA was re-introduced in the current Congress with 159 co-sponsors by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-New York, and Sen. Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey. The struggle to win the last three states also continues. We are just as determined as ever to ratify it.)

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There was never a secret where Ford stood on women's rights. She was outspoken in the push for full equality for women and girls. She was also for abortion rights. I first met her when she attended the International Women's Conference in 1978 with some 20,000 delegates in Houston. Lady Bird Johnson was there, too, and then-first lady Rosalynn Carter. That was happening in a time when many Republican and Democratic women stood shoulder to shoulder together for women's rights.

Betty had real courage.

When the 1980 National Republican Convention in Detroit was deciding whether or not to keep the ERA in its platform (up until then it had been in its platform for several decades), Betty left the convention and together with the Republican first lady of Michigan, Helen Milliken, joined the National Organization for Women's protest march. I was the president of NOW at the time, and Betty and Helen were on either side of me as we marched with some 12,000 people through the streets of Detroit and wound past the convention center shouting, "Keep the ERA in the platform."

Believe me, Betty and Helen were not troubled a bit that their husbands were inside the convention. They knew they belonged in the streets with the women and with NOW keeping the dream of equality alive.

Betty Ford traveled as the ERA countdown co-chair across the country. She and Alda kicked off the campaign with more than 170 rallies in 42 states. She led marches, rallies, walks, fund-raising dinners and events.

In her matter-of-fact and honest way, she connected with big and small audiences. She was a real trouper. I remember one event in Florida. There was a terrible storm. Betty flew in anyway, and you would have never known she had had a rough flight.

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.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Eleanor Smeal.

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