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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Remembering Betty Ford

“Have you heard the news?” I received a flurry of emails like this from family members and friends in the hours and days after Betty Ford’s death. They know of my work on the history of alcoholic women, so it was a logical question. Of course, I was saddened to hear of her passing, and in the aftermath I have found myself grappling with questions of periodization and pondering the sense of ownership we sometimes attach to the issues and people we study. On the one hand, Ford was “outside my period” as we say in the trade, since my research has concentrated on the nineteenth and early-to-mid twentieth century era. In fact, I was acutely uncomfortable writing about someone who was still living, and so I had relegated Ford to the epilogue of my book-in-progress. On the other hand, I have found to my surprise that I have cultivated some proprietary feelings about her as well. As a girl growing up in Michigan during the 1970s, I was aware that my mother and her friends—regardless of their formal political affiliations—admired Ford’s down-to-earth character as First Lady, believing it reflected a regional, gendered identity which they shared, that of the capable, unpretentious Midwestern woman. This image, in turn, shaped Ford’s cultural meaning as a female alcoholic and addict.

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