Who Is Rosalynn Carter?
Rosalynn Carter is an American first lady born on August 18, 1927, in Plains, Georgia. She met Jimmy Carter through a mutual friend, and in 1946 she married him at age 18. Carter was at her husband’s side during his political rise in the ‘60s. She became first lady of Georgia when her husband won the Governor’s role in 1970 and first lady of the U.S. when he was inaugurated as president in 1977. One of her most important roles during her husband’s presidency was as the Active Honorary Chair of the President's Commission on Mental Health.
Rosalynn Carter was born Eleanor Rosalynn Smith on August 18, 1927, in Plains, Georgia. The first of four children, her father, Wilburn Edgar Smith, worked as a mechanic and a farmer, and her mother, Allie Murray Smith, was a housewife. However, in 1940, when her father died, Rosalynn was forced to take a job as a hairdresser to help her mother make ends meet. Her mother also took on various jobs to help support them.
Rosalynn attended local high school in Plains, and graduated as valedictorian. It was during high school that she met Jimmy Carter, her best friend's older brother, and a cadet at the Annapolis Naval Academy. The two began to date, and in December 1945, Carter proposed to Rosalynn, who refused his proposal because she thought it too early in their courtship. Undeterred, Carter proposed again two months later, and Rosalynn accepted. They were married on July 7, 1946, at Plains Methodist Church.
The newlyweds moved to Norfolk, Virginia, the first in a long series of assignments in Jimmy's naval career that would take them to bases around the country for the next seven years. Their three sons — John, James and Jeffrey — were also born during this time (they would later have a daughter, Amy, in 1967), and Rosalynn split her time between raising them and continuing an education in literature and art through home-study programs.
In 1953 following the death of Jimmy's father, they returned to Plains, and Jimmy ran the family peanut business. In what would prove to be the first in a long line of collaborations between Rosalynn and her husband, she was responsible for the business' bookkeeping.
First Lady of Georgia
In 1961 Jimmy Carter was elected to the Georgia Senate, frequently leaving Rosalynn to see to the business while he was away attending legislative sessions. She also handled his political correspondence during his subsequent two terms.
The couple's working partnership was further cemented when Jimmy ran for governor of Georgia in 1970 and Rosalynn campaigned for her husband. It was on the campaign trail that Rosalynn became deeply interested in mental health issues, as a result of her frequent conversations with his constituents.
When Jimmy was ultimately elected governor, Rosalynn saw to all the traditional responsibilities of a first lady, such as hosting, but she also went further, taking over the financial accounting of the governor's mansion as well as its landscaping, and also wrote a book about the mansion. More importantly, 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.
First Lady of America
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.
Carter caused a bit of an upset when she decided to re-wear her blue chiffon dress with gold trim at the inaugural ball (she wore the gown twice before). However, her choice to do so was a reflection of the Carters' personality.
“It enhanced the incoming Carter presidency’s notions of modesty and frugality,” Curator Lisa Kathleen Graddy of The Smithsonian Museum of American History explains.
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.
Advocacy for Mental Health & the Elderly
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.
After the White House
In 1980, when Jimmy Carter was up for re-election, but was mostly confined to the White House while dealing with the Iranian Hostage Crisis, Rosalynn again hit the campaign trail and made speeches as his representative throughout the primary season. However, he was ultimately defeated by Ronald Reagan.
Since leaving the White House, Rosalynn Carter's life has been anything but quiet. She has authored numerous books, including an autobiography titled First Lady from Plains (1984), praised for its insight into Jimmy's administration. She has also continued to advocate for mental health issues, as well as early childhood immunization, human rights, and conflict resolution. Ever the champion of the neglected, she has also worked to address the unmet needs of U.S. soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
For her efforts, Rosalynn has received countless honors, including various mental health awards and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian honor. In 2001, she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.
The Carters have 12 grandchildren, including Jason Carter, who's following in the family's political legacy, having served as a state senator in Georgia and run for governor as a Democratic nominee in 2014.
In 2015 the Carters' 28-year-old grandson Jeremy (from their son Jeff) died of a heart attack.
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