Postal Updates

Letters to first lady Betty Ford recall her decision to support the Equal Rights Amendment

Mar 26, 2024, 10 AM
First lady Betty Ford, the subject of a United States commemorative stamp to be issued April 5, was a proud support of the Equal Rights Amendment.

Delivering the Mail by Allen Abel

The voices of our mothers and grandmothers ring out from passionately typed and penciled pages. Some of those voices are content with the old ways or eager for the new.

As the United States Postal Service prepares to issue a nondenominated (68¢) commemorative stamp on April 5 to honor Betty Ford, the nation’s 38th first lady, a trove of her incoming correspondence beckons a modern reader with insight into the lives and dreams of less exalted American women at a great intersection of history.

[Editor’s note: A detailed story about the upcoming Betty Ford stamp appears in the April 8 issue of Linn’s Stamp News.]

It was early in 1975, half a year after Richard M. Nixon resigned the presidency and Betty Ford’s husband, Gerald, once a University of Michigan football star and for a quarter century a powerful Republican signal-caller in Congress, became the commander-in-chief.

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.

[Editor’s note: As of the June 30, 1982, ratification deadline, only 35 of the necessary 38 states (the three-fourths required by the Constitution) had ratified the amendment. As such, the ERA is not part of the Constitution.]

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. (Some staffers must have been tasked with counting them.)

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 perused on the website of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum in Michigan.

One such letter, from Mildred Burroughs in Ellinwood, Kan., began:

“Dear Mrs. Ford,

“… I felt you should know the feelings of a wife and mother who feels she is quite liberated without this act becoming part of our United States Constitution ... ”

“I saw your picture on the front page of our local paper the other day wearing an enormous ERA button,” Jan Dublin of Ithaca, N. Y., wrote to Ford. “After so many First Ladies who wouldn’t go near anything but furniture and gardens, it is truly gratifying to find a woman who is interested in doing a little more for her country.”

“As a 29-year-old single woman, I am constantly having to explain and apologize for a life style I find completely enjoyable and interesting,” penned Linda Harris of Raleigh, N.C., “so it is a relief to know there is one person who is open-minded and forthright enough to say so.”

“Have you let being ‘first lady’ go to your head?” countered a woman who signed her letter “Just a friend.” “Why not stick to the gracious position as ‘first lady’ and forget ERA and politics? Why not count to 10 before you pick up the phone again?”

Some of the ERA’s opponents believed that its ratification would compel young women to sign up for military conscription and serve in combat alongside men.

“The fact that if the draft is effected again, women would be subject to register at age 18 and would have to serve if called,” Burroughs wrote. “If you have children and you are called before your husband, you go and he would be deferred. Under this law, a woman could be forced to equally support her family, or totally support them if she is a better wage earner. To me this is not liberation.”

Almost half a century later, the Equal Rights Amendment still has not become part of the Constitution. Betty Ford is remembered for her bravery in saying publicly that she had undergone a mastectomy and for seeking treatment for her addictions to painkillers and alcohol.

Millions of Americans have sought treatment for cancer and rehabilitation for substance abuse at the centers that carry her name.

And Mildred Burroughs, who signed her letter “Mrs. Dale Burroughs (Mildred),” still lives with the same husband in the same house on the same street in Ellinwood, Kan.

“I think that Betty Ford was a gracious and courageous lady,” Burroughs told Linn’s in an early March phone call from Barton County, near the center of the Sunflower State. “She had cancer, and that made me sad.”

“But those politicians today!” Burroughs exclaimed. “There’s no common sense! Where do they get all those dumb ideas?”

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