Rosalynn Carter was first lady of the United States from 1977 to 1981, wife to 39th President Jimmy Carter.
Rosalynn Carter’s legacy
As first lady, Carter was a mental health advocate who worked to improve mental health care and destigmatize mental illness. She was an active first lady who attended cabinet meetings and helped her husband with speeches, one of the earliest to take a prominent role. In later years, Carter was frequently seen working alongside her husband as they supported Habitat for Humanity, both serving as a board member and building homes for the needy.
Born Rosalynn Smith Aug. 18, 1927, in Plains, Georgia, the daughter of a farmer and a dressmaker, Carter grew up in poverty and dreamed of being an architect. When her father died of leukemia in her 13th year, she began helping her mother in her small business, as well as assisting with raising her three younger siblings. Despite her many responsibilities at home, she excelled in school and graduated near the top of her class – she was salutatorian of her class at Plains High School.
Wilburn Smith, her father, encouraged her before his death to go to college, and she began attending Georgia Southwestern College after high school, planning to transfer to Georgia State College for Women and study interior design. As was the case for so many college-bound women in those days, romance intervened.
Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter grew up in the same town, and their families knew each other. It was in 1945 that they began dating, while Jimmy was attending the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Their dating marked the beginning of a lifelong love affair, one that was made official when they exchanged wedding vows July 7, 1946. Carter canceled her plans to attend Georgia State College for Women, opting instead to travel with Jimmy to Norfolk, Virginia, where he was stationed. The couple moved from base to base during Jimmy’s years of military service, settling back in Plains when he left the service in 1953.
In the early years of marriage, much of Carter’s time was devoted to raising their children: Jack, born in 1947; Chip, born in 1950; Jeff, born in 1952; and Amy, born in 1967. But she was also an integral part of the family business: the peanut farm that helped give her husband a down-home appeal as he campaigned for various political offices. Carter was responsible for the accounting duties required in running a large farm.
When her husband first sought political office in 1962 – a seat in the Georgia State Senate – Carter was right there beside him, proving instrumental to his short campaign. He threw his hat into the ring just 15 days before the election, and it was, in part, Carter’s keen political instinct that won him the spot. She continued to be an active part of his political career as he served in the Senate and when, in 1970, he sought the governorship of Georgia.
With her husband’s success in the 1970 gubernatorial election, Carter became the first lady of Georgia, and her life in the public eye began. Her focus became mental health, as she sought to improve mental health systems and work to destigmatize mental illness. As a member of the Governor’s Commission to Improve Services to the Mentally and Emotionally Handicapped, she began working quickly toward her goal. A hands-on advocate, Carter volunteered at Atlanta’s Georgia Regional Hospital and became involved with the Georgia Special Olympics.
Carter was able to continue her mental health advocacy on a larger scale when, in 1976, her husband was elected to the presidency. As honorary chair of the President’s Commission on Mental Health, she became the second first lady to appear before U.S. Congress – the first was Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962) – when she testified in support of the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980. This act, passed by Congress, provided grants to community mental health centers, but it was largely repealed shortly after President Ronald Reagan (1911–2004) took office.
No one-note advocate, Carter also supported other causes as the first lady. Along with former first ladies Betty Ford (1918–2011) and Lady Bird Johnson (1912–2007), she supported the Equal Rights Amendment, campaigning for the doomed law at Houston’s conference for the 1977 International Women’s Year. She was honorary chair of Friendship Force International, an international cultural exchange program that was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 while she held the honorary position. She tackled unemployment by hosting a 1978 seminar in which community leaders shared approaches to increasing employment in their areas.
In addition to working with the causes that were important to her, Carter also took an unprecedented role in her husband’s presidency. Unlike any first lady before her, she attended Cabinet meetings. She didn’t participate actively, but she took notes and soaked up the information being discussed so she would be able to answer questions with an informed opinion when traveling and speaking to the American people. Carter also assisted her husband with revising speeches, providing an invaluable perspective of the average audience member. She traveled to Latin America in 1977 and Cambodia in 1979, representing the United States.
After leaving the White House in 1981, Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter co-founded the Carter Center, a nonprofit organization whose mission statement describes its “fundamental commitment to human rights and the alleviation of human suffering.” A member of the organization’s board of trustees, she focused particularly on its mental health programs. As a representative of the Carter Center, Carter traveled the world to advance peace and aid the poor.
Carter’s mental health advocacy continued after the White House years. She worked with a number of organizations, including the American Psychiatric Association and the National Mental Health Association. She established the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism, offering stipends to journalists reporting on mental health-related topics. In 2008, she joined David Wellstone, son of former Senator Paul Wellstone (1944–2002), in lobbying for the successful Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act.
In their later years, the Carters became well-known for their extensive work with Habitat for Humanity. In addition to serving on its advisory board, the couple pitched in directly, donning hard hats and swinging hammers as they worked alongside other volunteers to build houses for the needy. She spoke glowingly of the joy she got out of the work: “Before that, Jimmy and I were good Christians,” she said in a 2015 news conference. “We’ve always been good Christians. But we weren’t doing what we should have done until we got involved with Habitat for Humanity.”
Carter was much honored for the good works she performed in her lifetime. A member of the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York, she was only the third first lady to receive that honor. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Bill Clinton in 1999, the Georgia Woman of the Year Award in 1996 and the American Peace Award in 2009. She held honorary degrees from several universities and was a distinguished fellow at Emory University’s Department of Women’s Studies.
“Ultimately, the way we treat people living with mental illnesses is a moral issue. To neglect those who, through no fault of their own, are in need, runs counter to our values, our decency and equality. Today, with our knowledge and expertise, we have a great opportunity to change things forever, for all people with mental illnesses, with what we know now, to move forward to a new era of understanding, care and respect.” –from a 2018 forum at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
Tributes to Rosalynn Carter
Full obituary: The New York Times