In 1975, Ford told television's "60 Minutes" that if her 18-year-old daughter, Susan, had an affair, she would not necessarily object. She also told the women's magazine McCall's that she had sex with her husband "as often as possible."
Some media observers say her legacy may have been greater than that of her husband, who served barely one term -- 1974 to 1977 -- and was the only president never to have been elected to office.
Speaker of the house, he rose to the vice presidency in 1974 under the terms of the 25th amendment after the resignation of Richard M. Nixon's vice president Spiro Agnew.
When Nixon resigned in disgrace later that year, Ford ascended to the presidency. His most controversial decision was granting a pardon to Nixon for his role in the Watergate scandal in an attempt to heal the country.
When he ran unsuccessfully against Georgia Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1976, women wore buttons and T-shirts that urged voters to, "Elect Betty's Husband."
Catherine Allgor, professor of history and presidential chair at University of California Riverside, said Ford was perhaps the first "post-modern" first lady.
"She was a dancer, she was educated, she had a career, she had two marriages," Allgor said of her divorce the year before she married Ford. "She began to speak out on sexuality and women's health, things we now talk about at the dinner table.
"She was part of a generation of women who were trailblazers. You could be yourself and speak your mind. And she had a mind to speak."
Ford also "got a lot of flak from people to dare to break respectable silences," she said. She was pro choice and pushed for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.
Although Ford lost to Carter, his wife showed the tremendous power of the first lady to "radiate the psychology and emotional message" about her husband's administration.
"She sent the message that the Fords were modern people, honest, forthright," Allgor said. "They were moral people who wrestled with dilemmas about our children and their health."
Other speakers included presidential historian Richard Norton Smith, Geoffrey Mason, a former director of the Betty Ford Clinic, and an alcoholic named "Jeff" who had been helped by her charitable work.
After the service, Ford's remains will be flown to Michigan for a public viewing and burial at the presidential museum alongside her husband, former President Gerald R. Ford, who died in 2006.
"I have been reading many obits this morning and over and over again, [Betty Ford] said, 'I was going to be myself,'" said Steven V. Roberts, a contributing editor to U.S. News and World Report and husband of Cokie Roberts.
"The core of what led to everything else is that she was thrust into a role that she never expected, and said, 'I am who I am.'''