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Space Is Power
Rosalynn Carter’s East Wing and the office that changed everything.
Think of the symbolism of this statement.
“In 1976, Rosalynn Carter came to town … She arrived with a battered, brown, old briefcase … in one hand and a sewing machine in the other.”
Those were the nostalgic words of Mary Finch Hoyt, press secretary to former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, spoken during a discussion of her memoir “East Wing: Politics, the Press, and a First Lady” at the Women’s National Democratic Club in Washington, D.C. in 2002.
It has been some 20 years since Hoyt made the quip to an audience that included Carter, who introduced her now deceased friend at the event. And, at the time, it had been about 25 years since that conjured-up image took place. It’s an image that captures the pulse of a nation caught in a fierce debate over the Equal Rights Amendment, legislation Carter supported along with other former first ladies from both political parties.
Women worked in and out of the home. The proposed constitutional amendment stated men and women should have equal rights under the law. It was passed by Congress in 1972 with a deadline for ratification by March 1979. Thirty-eight states would need to approve the amendment, a feat nearly accomplished with 35 states doing so. The crucial three additional states needed would come on board, to the first lady’s disappointment, long after the one-term Carter administration exited Washington.
So when Eleanor Rosalynn Smith Carter came to the White House after her husband Jimmy Carter, a Democratic governor from Georgia, narrowly defeated incumbent Republican President Gerald Ford in the 1976 presidential election, she arrived making history on day one.
It was the path of the battered briefcase that Carter would forge inside the White House. Unlike any other first lady, Carter set up the first ever working office in the East Wing. The decision, in so many ways, reflected the women’s movement and direction of the country. The decision, for a first lady, though, changed everything.
East Wing, meet Rosalynn Carter
As early as the Thomas Jefferson administration (1801-1809) conceptions of the White House East and West wings began to emerge. Historical records show the area where the East Wing now exists was believed to include a meat house and cellar. In future reconstructions, the East Wing would serve a higher purpose. After a major reconstruction in 1942, the ground floor entrance was traditionally used for tours, official receptions and working quarters for the president’s military aides and the first lady's social secretaries.
But when Rosalynn Carter, born in Plains, Georgia, arrived, it was no secret that operations in the East Wing were about to change. Press accounts make mention of her intentions to set up a permanent office in the East Wing with a sizable staff of 18 that Carter would personally direct. The “Office of the First Lady,” as it was dubbed, would include the departments of projects and community liaison, press and research, schedule and advance, and social and personal. Eventually, 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.
Clearly, there was a lot to do. Hoyt summed up the duties inside the East Wing in a 1980 White House exit interview for the Jimmy Carter Library.
“Our role here in this office is to disseminate information about the White House and its grounds; to be sure that all the social events are covered; to see that all of her educational and cultural activities are covered; to worry about publications, magazines; set up interviews. It's a big job because it's more than just the first lady. It's got a lot to do with the house, it's got a lot to do with the social life of the White House.
“I mean the volume here is so much more than I ever anticipated,” Hoyt said. “For a first lady, I don't think anybody really understands that.”
Hoyt’s limited description of the first lady’s undertakings isn’t surprising to scholars.
“I think that acknowledges what had been de facto for a very long time,” said Karen Kedrowski, Ph.D., and director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University. Well into the 19th century, the role of the first lady was important to the administration. By formalizing the role with an office, a staff and a budget, it indicates that the role had evolved into being a crucial part of the administration.
“Essentially, that role … was becoming institutionalized,” Kedrowski said.
At the time, there wasn’t strong resistance to Carter setting up an East Wing office. In fact, Kedrowski said Carter's public opinion polls were always very favorable. Where Carter received negative reviews revolved not around the office she established, but about her persona.
“In June 1978, a lengthy Washington Post article presented her as lacking personal strength, subsumed by her husband’s career, and a victim of White House image makers,” wrote MaryAnne Borrelli in her 2011 book “The Politics of the President’s Wife.”
Time would tell — four short years — how Carter’s image flipped.
The first lady’s workspace
It was evident to Carter and scholars tracking the evolution of the president’s wife’s role that allocating a workspace at the time was warranted, if not long overdue. Driving the need were aspects of the first lady’s role, which, over time, became departmentalized. Areas such as communications and correspondence are major aspects of the first lady’s duties, according Borrelli, Ph.D., and professor of government at Connecticut College.
Upon entering the White House, Carter initiated a structure around duties and causes. Real logistical questions on mail, for instance, had cropped up in past administrations. The first lady, over the years, receives a tremendous amount of mail. So, if the president and the first lady are getting mail, do you combine them? Or do you separate them? These questions during the Nixon administration became a huge negotiation, according to Borrelli, because mail is a measure of popularity, and popularity is a measure of power.
“As you get the departmentalization of the first lady then you get specialization. Now you get space. The space follows the expertise,” Borrelli told me in a recent Zoom interview, adding, “The emergent bureaucracy of the [first lady’s role] drives the spatial allocations because space in the White House is power.”
But, the power wasn't simply handed to the first lady, according to Borrelli. In many respects, Rosalynn Carter earned it.
Take the Carters’ East Wing-West Wing relationship, for instance. It is often looked back on as a partnership, which Borrelli believes has been overstated throughout the years. Carter, in addition to traditional duties, attended Cabinet meetings, major briefings, and represented the president at ceremonial events. She publicly supported the Equal Rights Amendment. She stood out as an emissary to Latin American countries and served as the honorary chairperson of the President’s Commission on Mental Health, testifying before Congress in favor of the Mental Health System Act in 1979.
“They each had an understanding of their areas of expertise and they basically stayed in their lane,” Borrelli said.
Specifically, Borrelli is referring to Rosalynn Carter’s work on the Mental Health Commission, an interest that took root when she served as first lady of Georgia. At that time, Georgia had probably one of the worst records of mental health care in the nation, according to Borrelli. The state was infamous for its violations of human rights. And so when Carter stepped into that policy area, she was stepping into a conflagration, Borrelli said.
Jimmy Carter, then governor, had her participate in an apprenticeship where she volunteered in mental health settings. “She doesn't just do the visit, kind of thing,” Borrelli said. “She has to demonstrate policy mastery. That's the real thing. She gets power. He allocates the power. And she earns the power.”
While Borrelli acknowledges that may sound sexist, she points to Jimmy Carter earning the power of the presidency and then allocating power, but not without merit—something Borrelli believes was born from his military service.
“He had that kind of mentality of you earn your place. Nothing’s given. Everything is respected,” she said. And, in turn, the first lady’s office had a measure of specialization, which had not previously been seen.
A role or a job?
Describing the first lady’s duties as a role and less of a job frustrates some scholars studying their influence on the administration.
“It’s sort of accepted as de rigueur even though the first lady remains technically a private citizen and the first lady does all this work without drawing a salary,” Kedrowski said. “Again, women’s work is not valued monetarily.”
Certainly, she added, if that kind of work had to be hired out — the public relations, the goodwill, the advice, the hosting — that would command a significant salary.
U.S. News and World Report tallied Carter’s activities in a story after her first year in the White House. Research shows “Carter visited 16 nations and 21 domestic cities; worked 250 hours on mental health; held 21 press conferences; supervised 39 receptions, 20 congressional breakfasts and eight state dinners; took part in 19 arrival ceremonies for heads of state; was briefed for 71 hours on foreign and domestic affairs and spent 210 hours learning Spanish.”
The story went on to quote Carter about her workload. “I’ve always worked and helped with the business,” she explained, “it never occurred to me to do anything else.”
The first lady’s duties are both empowering and limiting, according to Kedrowski.
It’s empowering because there is a recognition that this social and event planning and public relations role is really important. “The fact that the first lady then has a platform from which she can advocate for causes — and now infrastructure to help amplify that message — that’s clearly empowering,” she said.
At the same time, the role is limiting because of this persistent question: What should be the appropriate duties of the first lady?
“For women who want to expand that, they face a backlash,” Kedrowski said.
Facing one of the harshest backlashes was former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in 1993 after her husband, President William J. Clinton named her as chair to the Task Force on National Health Care Reform to reform the American healthcare system. Hillary Rodham Clinton, in this first formal policy appointment by her husband, drew heavy opposition and ultimately was unsuccessful.
Scholars believe Carter’s decision to have an office in the White House sent a clear message: The work was important and that Carter intended on doing it well.
For future first ladies
Carter’s East Wing office anchored her accomplishments over four short years, but it also secured space and, with it, power for future first ladies.
“Rosalynn Carter is a very savvy person,” Kedrowski said. “She had experience as first lady of Georgia. I think she probably realized that, yes, she was setting a precedent.”
What surprised scholars is that it took until 1977.
“Really busy and engaged first ladies before that; how they did that without having an office and staff is really kind of remarkable,” Kedrowski said.
Carter had a way of allaying concern by extending a woman’s role in the private sphere onto the public stage, according to Borrelli. Caring for others extended to the Mental Health Commission. Being a good mother extended into community volunteerism. And when she encountered pushback, it was because she was sitting there and being more forthright about her political knowledge and her desire for more political knowledge.
From that point on, future first ladies had more to contemplate. As long as there would be designated square footage there would be decisions about staff and how they would be used, decisions about causes, and decisions about the relationship between the East and West wings.
“It set the precedent that there would be a role, that there would be an office for first ladies,” Kedrowski said.
And as for those early reviews of Carter’s weak persona? They faded by the 1980 reelection campaign. Carter was well aware of how her image — partner, confidante and advisor — evolved.
“It’s really interesting,” Carter said to Hoyt in a written account from Hoyt’s memoir, “how I’ve gone from having a fuzzy image to being so powerful that I’m being muzzled by the president’s men. You know as well as I know that I’ve done nothing differently from the day I walked into the White House.” Some scholars interpret this sentiment as Carter comparing her early, undeveloped persona as nonthreatening to a few years later when she came into her own. Then, her opinions would occasionally make waves inside the White House, something administration officials would have to deal with, according to Kredowski.
In the decades since, Carter has championed causes to help improve the quality of people’s lives. Through the nonprofit Carter Center in Atlanta established in 1982, the couple continued advocating for mental health, early childhood immunization, human rights and conflict resolution. An announcement from the Carter family in May stated Rosalynn Carter has dementia and was living “happily at home with her husband” enjoying visits with loved ones.
But it was, perhaps, in the immediate years after the presidency, that Carter understood her impact and ultimately her legacy. In 1984, The New York Times covered the First National Conference on American First Ladies. Carter attended alongside Betty Ford and they fielded questions examining the role of first lady. Both women, at the time, were characterized as “activist” first ladies “because of their support for social issues.”
What was true at that time, is true, even more so, now. And, Carter said it best.
''I think the role of first lady has changed as the role of women has changed,'' Carter said, ''and it will probably never be the same again.''