Remembering Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter

Rosalynn Carter, wife of former President Jimmy Carter, died on November 19, 2023. She was 96 years old. She and the president had been married 77 years. Rosalynn (pronounced ROSE-a-lynn) Carter greatly expanded the role of First Lady of the United States during her husband’s presidency. She fought fiercely for mental health reform, women’s rights, and global human rights. Even after she and her husband left the White House, the former first lady continued her efforts to improve the quality of life for others. 

Early Life 

Eleanor Rosalynn Smith was born in Plains, Georgia, in 1927. She was the oldest of four children. After her father died when she was 13, she helped her mother by working and taking care of her younger siblings.  She graduated as valedictorian of Plains High School.  

Rosalynn began dating her best friend’s brother, a sailor in the U.S. Navy named Jimmy Carter. They married in 1946 and then she graduated with a Junior College Diploma from Georgia Southwestern College. The Carters moved often when Mr. Carter was stationed throughout the United States.Mrs. Carter raised their four children while he was at sea much of the time. She was unhappy when they had to return to Plains, Georgia, in 1953, to run the Carter family’s peanut farm.  Mrs. Carter eventually took over the financial side of the business, and their partnership flourished. 

During the civil rights movement in the early 1960s, the Carters supported school desegregation, although many Georgians opposed it. It was then that Jimmy Carter became interested in running for political office. Rosalynn Carter overcame her shyness and helped her husband’s campaign. He was elected Georgia’s governor in 1970. Six years later, when he ran for president, Mrs. Carter traveled widely to campaign for him again. She visited hundreds of radio and TV stations to give speeches and answer questions about her husband’s political beliefs. 

First Lady of the United States 

Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976. After moving to Washington, D.C., Mrs. Carter completely changed the traditional role of First Lady. She made it a professional role, opening an office in the East Wing of the White House and hiring a chief-of-staff.  Mrs. Carter attended Cabinet meetings and daily briefings with her husband. She also made a weekly lunch appointment with the president to advise him on issues she was passionate about. Journalists nicknamed her the “Steel Magnolia” because of her strong yet modest personality.  

Rosalynn Carter’s key focus during the White House years was mental health reform. Her work resulted in the creation of the Presidential Commission on Mental Health. Unable by law to serve as the official chairperson, she became its honorary chair. Mrs. Carter led hearings throughout the country for improved mental health research and legislation. In 1979, she testified before Congress—only the second First Lady in history to do so. Her work resulted in better treatment for people with mental illness. It also reduced the stigma, or negative viewpoint, that many people held about mental illness. 

Rosalynn Carter also became a valuable political partner and adviser. She traveled to Central and South America, where she met with heads of state to discuss human rights. She visited Cambodia and raised millions of dollars for refugees there. She fought for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment and encouraged women to run for political office. 

Life After the White House 

After losing reelection to Ronald Reagan in 1980, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter moved back to their home in Plains. In 1982, Rosalynn and Jimmy co-founded The Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia. For more than 40 years, they worked side-by-side to achieve the nonprofit’s goals of promoting peace, resolving conflicts, and wiping out diseases. Their humanitarian efforts took them to parts of Africa and Asia, where they worked to get rid of Guinea worm disease. They monitored elections in hotspots, or troubled places, around the world to promote democracy. In addition, they built more than 4,000 houses in the United States and abroad for the charity Habitat for Humanity. This included traveling to Haiti when that country was devastated by an earthquake in 2010. 

 Mrs. Carter also worked tirelessly on her own causes. The Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers (RCI) was established in 1987. It brought attention and help to the millions of families who struggle to take care of their sick or elderly loved ones. When an outbreak of measles occurred in 1991 in the United States, Rosalynn Carter co-founded a nonprofit organization to promote vaccinations against childhood diseases.

Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter together received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1999. This is the highest honor for civilians in the United States. The former First Lady was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2001. 

Share What You Know Select one of the organizations founded or co-founded by Rosalynn Carter and do further research on it. Share what you learn with a classmate.