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Rosalynn Carter 'Put Her Humanity Into Action'
The former first lady is remembered for her precedent-setting, permanent office in the White House where she advocated for her causes.
Described as an “activist” first lady and a “true partner” to her husband Jimmy Carter, the 39th President of the United States, Rosalynn Carter changed the way future first ladies forever approached the position in the East Wing of the White House.
Rosalynn Carter, 96, died “peacefully” at her home Sunday in Plains, Georgia, surrounded by her family. It was announced on Friday that the former first lady entered hospice care and in May, she was diagnosed with dementia. Public visitation and a schedule of ceremonies were pending at the time of publication of this story.
When Rosalynn Carter stepped into the position of first lady after her husband, Jimmy Carter, a Democratic governor from Georgia who narrowly defeated incumbent Republican President Gerald Ford in 1976, she took the job seriously. Although the first lady holds an unpaid position in the White House, Rosalynn Carter is credited with being the first, first lady to carry a briefcase and set up a permanent office in the East Wing.
“It's thanks to [Rosalynn Carter] that the [Office of the First Lady] is structured as we know it today,” says Anita McBride, co-author of “U.S. First Ladies: Making History and Leaving Legacies.” “She had every intention of being a full partner to her husband and to use her first lady platform to work on the issues she cared about.”
It was a pivotal moment for Rosalynn Carter and women across the country who were in a fierce debate over the Equal Rights Amendment, a proposed constitutional amendment mandating legal gender equality for women and men. Carter’s support for the ERA along with setting up a staff of her own that she would personally direct, mirrored much of what was already playing out with women in the workforce in society.
Mrs. Carter was very active using her platform as the nation's highest profile woman for ratification of the ERA, according to McBride, who also served as former chief of staff to former First Lady Laura Bush and is the director of American University’s First Ladies Initiative. “But interestingly when the measure failed, feminist groups blamed the president for putting Rosalynn and other female family members front and center in the fight,” McBride says.
Just this past October, it was 45 years since then President Carter signed the extension of the deadline for ratification of the ERA with Rosalynn Carter watching over his shoulder. She later described the ratification’s failure as one of her biggest disappointments in her 1984 autobiography “First Lady From Plains.”
“My greatest disappointment in all the projects I worked on during the White House years was the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment to be ratified,” Rosalynn Carter said. “Why all the controversy and why such difficulty in giving women the protection of the Constitution that should have been theirs long ago?”
Eventually, Mrs. Carter became the first, first lady to hire a chief of staff with a rank and salary equal to that of other White House staff. Carter’s organization of the Office of the First Lady signaled the role of first lady “was becoming institutionalized,” Karen Kedrowski, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women Politics and Iowa State University, told East Wing Magazine in August.
MaryAnne Borrelli, author of the 2011 book “The Politics of the President’s Wife,” told East Wing Magazine in August that the emergent bureaucracy of the first lady’s role during the Carter Administration drove the spatial allocation in the East Wing. “Space in the White House is power,” she said at the time.
“While [Rosalynn Carter] argued to expand her first lady staff, the President had specifically campaigned on cutting the White House staff,” notes McBride. “She admits that this was the issue over which she and her husband had their biggest disagreements.”
The combination of Carter’s tenacity and Southern gentleness earned her the moniker “steel magnolia.”
“[Rosalynn Carter] radiated kindness and strength, and she actively put her humanity into action,” says Michelle Gullion, director of Collections & Research at the National First Ladies Library & Museum in Canton, Ohio.
Gullion also spotlight’s Mrs. Carter’s determination during the 1976 and 1980 campaigns, describing to East Wing Magazine the former first lady’s efforts as “commendable.”
“In her autobiography, she wrote about campaigning in a station wagon around the country in 1976. As she traveled, she would throw on a wig if she was having a bad hair day, and wash clothing in the hotel sink on her quest to knock on radio station doors for interviews from town to town,” says Gullion. “She took over and led the 1980 campaign trail when President Carter was tied to the White House during the Iran hostage crisis. She admitted she was extremely competitive, and she took the loss hard.”
And while barred by statute from being chair of the newly established President’s Commission on Mental Health early in 1977, Mrs. Carter became its honorary chair for the initiative to which she would dedicate the rest of her life. While first lady, she held hearings across the country, testified before Congress, and spearheaded passage of the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980, legislation signed by President Carter which provided grants to community mental health centers. During the following Ronald Reagan administration, the Congress repealed most of the law, according to GovTrack.us.
Carter traveled extensively overseas, according to The Carter Center, promoting both her own projects and the president’s policies. In a history-making trip to Latin America in 1977, she represented the U.S. government and visited with heads of state from seven Latin American countries, sharing her husband’s position on human rights and helping to enhance democracy. In Geneva, Switzerland, she became the first, first lady to address the World Health Organization.
“On her solo trip to seven Latin American countries there was skepticism by the State Department and Latin American leaders, themselves, about what value her trip would provide,” says McBride. “But she knew every leader wanted to talk with the president and there was no one closer than the president's wife who had his ear better than anyone.”
In the end, the State Department deemed her trip substantive, crediting her with making progress opening doors for U.S. diplomats in those countries to pursue her husband's agenda, McBride adds.
A high-profile example of Mrs. Carter as an advisor to the president was during the Camp David Peace accords for Arab-Israeli Peace. There, she took extensive, extemporaneous notes of the meetings and what her husband told her. “She explains in memoirs going through the ‘seesaw’ of emotions with her husband during the 12 days of intense negotiations,” says McBride. “By the end, she had almost 200 pages of typed notes, undoubtedly the best human account written of this period.”
As first lady, Rosalynn Carter advocated at the highest levels for causes that mattered. “She testified in front of Congress like Eleanor Roosevelt before her and Hillary Rodham Clinton and Laura Bush after her,” says McBride. She was the second, oldest first lady (after Bess Truman) and had the longest presidential marriage.
“She sets herself apart by extending the job of the president's wife beyond what it ever had been,” McBride says.
The former first lady was born Eleanor Rosalynn Smith on Aug. 18, 1927. She was the oldest of four children from her parents, Allethea Murray Smith and Wilburn Edgar Smith. Carter grew up in Plains, Georgia, a small town where the focus was on family, church and community. At 13, Carter’s father died of leukemia in 1940 forcing her mother to work as a dressmaker to support their family, according to The Carter Center.
Carter worked with her mother helping with sewing, housekeeping and rearing the younger children. She and her siblings didn’t know it at the time, but they grew up in poverty.
According to her autobiography, Carter says although their family "didn't have money," neither did "anyone else, so as far as we knew, we were well off."
With the loss of her father, came the loss of her childhood, Carter recounted in her autobiography.
Carter attended Plains High School, where she graduated as salutatorian, followed by attending Georgia Southwestern College and graduating in 1946, fulfilling her father’s dream of seeing her go to college, according to E. Stanly Godbold, Jr., in “Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter: Power and Human Rights, 1975- 2020.”
She met her future husband in 1945 while he was attending the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis and they married on July 7, 1946, in Plains.
The couple had four children: John William "Jack," born in 1947, James Earl "Chip" III, born in 1950, Donnel Jeffrey "Jeff," born in 1952, and Amy Lynn, born in 1967.
Post White House
After what she called an “involuntary retirement” to Plains in 1981, her work alongside her husband grew to become one of the most impactful post-White House legacies. Together, in 1982, they founded The Carter Center in Atlanta, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for people at home and in the developing world through programs to alleviate suffering and advance human rights. As emissaries for the Center, the Carters frequently circled the globe on nonpolitical campaigns to eradicate Guinea worm disease and eliminate other neglected tropical diseases, increase agricultural production in Africa, monitor elections in nascent democracies, urge greater compliance with international human rights standards, and resolve conflicts, according to The Carter Center
In that capacity, Rosalynn Carter accompanied the former president as a full partner, active participant, observant note-taker, and thoughtful advisor on high-profile peace missions, including in Bosnia, Cuba, Sudan, Ethiopia, and North Korea.
She also continued her advocacy in mental health by establishing the Carter Center’s Mental Health Program to combat stigma and discrimination against people with mental illnesses and promote improved mental health care in the United States and abroad. She chaired the Carter Center Mental Health Task Force, a group of individuals in a position to influence public policy; hosted an annual gathering of national mental health leaders to foster greater consensus on pivotal national policy issues; and established the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism to encourage accurate, in-depth reporting about mental health issues, according to The Carter Center.
In 2000, The Carter Center and Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health established the Rosalynn Carter Endowed Chair in Mental Health to honor Mrs. Carter’s lifelong commitment to mental health advocacy. It is the first endowed chair in mental health policy at a school of public health, and its focus is on prevention of mental disorders and promotion of mental health, according to The Carter Center.
When Rosalynn Carter saw the toll that caring for a loved one with mental illness had on a family, knowing firsthand the burden of caring for a critically ill or aging family member she, in 1987, founded the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers at Georgia Southwestern State University. Her work there was built on her belief that “there are only four kinds of people in this world: those who have been caregivers, those who are currently caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who will need caregivers.”
The organization serves all family caregivers, who number over 40 million in the United States, according to the RCI. Through Mrs. Carter's leadership, the RCI has increased public awareness of caregiver needs, advanced public and social policies to support caregivers, and become a catalyst for change.
Later, Rosalynn Carter continued her work in caring for others on a broad scale. In 1991, she reunited with Betty Bumpers, friend and then senate spouse from Arkansas, forming Vaccinate Your Family (founded as Every Child By Two) to campaign for timely infant immunizations.
“[Mrs. Carter] helped advocate and formalize the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocols,” McBride says. “She worked on this for many years after the White House. In fact, I had her speak to a group of African first ladies in 2011 where she advocated for them to engage on this issue in their countries.”
Mrs. Carter was also honorary chair of the call-to-action campaign, “Last Acts: Care and Caring at the End of Life,” a national coalition of individuals and organizations advocating more compassionate care for those who are dying. She also served as a distinguished fellow of the Emory University Department of Women’s Studies, championed 3Keys (formerly Project Interconnections), an Atlanta project to provide supportive housing for homeless individuals with mental illnesses. And for more than 30 years during Habitat for Humanity’s annual Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project, she demonstrated advanced carpentry skills as she and her husband helped build homes for poor families, according to The Carter Center.
Carter, a lifelong resident of Plains, also gave back to her hometown. She was a strong advocate for maintaining its historic integrity and served on the board of the Friends of the Jimmy Carter National Historical Park and the Plains Historical Preservation Trust. She was also an active member of Maranatha Baptist Church, where she served as a deacon.
Rosalynn Carter’s many honors include:
“Into the Light” Award from the National Mental Health Association
The National Academy of Medicine’s Rhoda and Bernard Sarnat International Prize in Mental Health
The Award of Merit for Support of the Equal Rights Amendment from the National Organization for Women
The Notre Dame Award for International Service
The Foundation for Hospice and Homecare Lifetime Achievement Award
United Seniors Health Cooperative Senior Advocate Award
The U.S. Surgeon General’s Medallion
The Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian recognition.
In 2001, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Rosalynn Carter was the author of five books:
Her autobiography, First Lady from Plains; Everything To Gain: Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life, a book co-authored with President Carter and inspired by their life after the White House
Helping Yourself Help Others: A Book For Caregivers (with Susan K. Golant)
Helping Someone with Mental Illness: A Compassionate Guide for Family, Friends, and Caregivers (with Susan K. Golant), which was selected as the winner of the 1999 American Society of Journalists and Authors Outstanding Book Award in the service category
Within Our Reach: Ending the Mental Health Crisis (with Susan K. Golant and Kathryn E. Cade)
According to The Carter Center, when asked how she would like to be remembered, Mrs. Carter said, “I would like for people to think that I took advantage of the opportunities I had and did the best I could.”
Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter had four children and 12 grandchildren.
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