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Rosalynn Carter is an American First Lady best known as the wife of President Jimmy Carter during his term from 1977-'81.
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More important, however, she followed her newfound interest and worked to overhaul the state's mental- health system. She was a member of the Governor's Commission to Improve Services to the Mentally and Emotionally Handicapped, an honorary chairperson of the Georgia Special Olympics, and a volunteer at an Atlanta hospital—all of which left her with an impressive professional resume in the mental-health field.
When Jimmy announced his candidacy for president, nearly two years before the 1976 election, Rosalynn immediately began campaigning for her husband, traveling around the country by car and plane, eventually campaigning in a total of 42 states. While on the trail, she would become the first candidate's wife to ever make her own campaign promise of her own: that as first lady she would make the welfare of the nation's mentally ill her priority.
In 1977, Jimmy Carter, with Rosalynn at his side, was sworn in as the 39th President of the United States. As first lady, she participated in his political affairs at a level unprecedented by previous first ladies, giving him counsel on both domestic and foreign affairs, advising him on speeches, arranging his appointments and even attending his cabinet meetings. In June of 1977, Rosalynn traveled to Latin America and the Caribbean as the president's personal representative for substantive political meetings. Upon her return, however, she received much criticism for being under-qualified for the task and, subsequently, restricted similar travel in the future to humanitarian missions.
In 1977, Rosalynn served as honorary chair on the Active Honorary Chair President's Commission on Mental Health. Her work with this committee would result in the Mental Health Systems Bill, which was submitted to Congress in May 1979. The bill was intended to overhaul both state and federal support for the chronically mentally ill and to create a bill of rights protecting the mentally ill from discrimination. On May 15, 1979, Rosalynn testified about the bill before Congress. It was passed in September of 1980.
Another of Rosalynn's primary causes during her time as first lady was the welfare of senior citizens. To that end she created a task force to review federal programs for the elderly and lobbied Congress for passage of the Age Discrimination Act, which lifted restrictions on the retirement age within the workforce. Rosalynn also presided over the White House Conference on Aging.
In her more traditional duties as first lady, Rosalynn again stood out, though in this capacity, through the frugal manner in which she ran the White House, serving inexpensive menus at dinners, refusing to serve hard alcohol, and choosing to wear simple, non-designer clothing. In another pair of White House firsts, Rosalynn sponsored both a poetry festival and a jazz festival.
In 1980, when Jimmy Carter was up for re-election, but was mostly confined to the White House while dealing with Iranian Hostage Crisis, Rosalynn again hit the campaign trail and made speeches as his representative throughout the primary season.
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When the 19th Amendment was ratified, women were finally given the right to vote, and over the years many courageous women have stepped onto the national political stage as well. In 1916, Jeannette Rankin became the first woman elected to Congress and almost a century later Sonia Sotomayor became the first Latina woman to serve on the Supreme Court. And within the last two decades, the esteemable Hillary Clinton has served as First Lady, a New York senator and Secretary of State. These women, and many more, are setting the stage for the future of female leaders in Washington.
Visit Biography.com's Women's History group to explore more biographies, photos and videos of some the world's most fascinating women."
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The wives of U.S. presidents are often important American figures in their own right. Although they have no official responsibilities, first ladies are a highly visible part of U.S. government. The role of the first lady has evolved over the centuries, from hostess of the White House to advocates for public policy. Learn about the different causes first ladies like Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton, and Michelle Obama have championed over the years, from literacy to addiction to health care reform.
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