Rosalynn Carter, mental health activist, humanitarian and former first lady, dies at 96
Rosalynn Carter, who as first lady worked tirelessly on behalf of mental health reform and professionalized the role of the president’s spouse, died Sunday at the age of 96, according to The Carter Center.
The Carter Center announced Friday that the former first lady had entered hospice care. She was diagnosed with dementia in May. Her husband began home hospice care in February, following a series of hospital stays.
Jimmy Carter was defeated in a landslide by Ronald Reagan four years after being elected. His single term in the White House included forging a rare peace agreement between Israel and Egypt that continues to this day, but it was also marked by soaring inflation and the Iran hostage crisis. Through it all, Rosalynn was by his side, and often whispering in his ear.
“And so I hope that during the holidays you’ll … include the Carter family in your prayers,” Jill Biden said.
President Joe Biden praised the Carter family while speaking to reporters after the holiday event. “They’re really an incredible family because they brought so much grace to the office,” he said.
Former President George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush similarly praised Rosalynn Carter as “a woman of dignity and strength.”
“There was no greater advocate of President Carter, and their partnership set a wonderful example of loyalty and fidelity. She leaves behind an important legacy in her work to destigmatize mental health. We join our fellow citizens in sending our condolences to President Carter and their family,” the pair said in a joint statement.
After leaving the White House, the couple traveled to hot spots around the world, including visits to Cuba, Sudan and North Korea, monitoring elections and working to eradicate Guinea worm disease and other neglected tropical diseases. Jimmy Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.
“The Carter Center is a shared legacy. She’s been there digging latrines right next to him,” said the Carters’ friend Jill Stuckey, a leader at Maranatha Baptist Church, where both Carters attended and where Jimmy Carter taught Sunday school.
In 1999, then-President Bill Clinton presented both Carters with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor. He said they had “done more good things for more people in more places than any other couple on Earth.”
The ‘Steel Magnolia’
Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter shared what many would call a true American story and a genuine lifelong partnership.
In 2015, when the 39th president announced his brain cancer diagnosis, he was asked of which accomplishment he was proudest. He did not hesitate to say that it was marrying Rosalynn: “That’s the pinnacle of my life.”
He shared at another point the secret of his enduring marriage.
“Rosalynn has been the foundation for my entire enjoyment of life. … First of all, it’s best to choose the right woman, which I did. And secondly, we give each other space to do our own things,” he told Jake Tapper on CNN’s “The Lead” in July 2015.
It was likely that Eleanor Rosalynn Smith would cross paths with Jimmy Carter in their small hometown of Plains, Georgia. They grew up at a time when candy cost a nickel and everyone in town knew one another.
“Occasionally someone would open a restaurant, but it would never last very long,” Rosalynn wrote in her memoir, “First Lady from Plains.”
Rosalynn did not grow up with much money. Her mother was a dressmaker and her father was an automobile mechanic who died from cancer when she was 13. She helped raise her younger siblings and considered her father’s death the end of her childhood.
The Carters met through Jimmy’s sister, Ruth, who was Rosalynn’s closest friend. When Rosalynn saw a photo of Carter on Ruth’s bedroom wall she thought, “He was the most handsome man I’d ever seen.” She even asked Ruth if she could take his photograph home with her.
Both devout Southern Baptists, Jimmy and Rosalynn met after a church meeting and soon began dating. They were married not long after his graduation from the Naval Academy when she was 18 and he was 21.
As the wife of a naval officer, Rosalynn moved frequently and she managed a large household. The Carters had three children in quick succession: John William (“Jack”), the year after their wedding in Norfolk; James Earl (“Chip”) III, less than three years later in Hawaii; and Donnel Jeffrey (“Jeff”) in New London, Connecticut, in 1952. Their only daughter, Amy Lynn, was born in 1967, a year after Carter lost his first bid for Georgia governor.
Jimmy Carter had been accepted to an elite nuclear submarine program but resigned his commission in Schenectady, New York, after his father died so that they could return to Plains in 1953 to look after the family farm. He decided to relocate the family without asking Rosalynn’s opinion. Rosalynn was so furious that she refused to talk to him the entire drive south.
After that, Jimmy Carter said he consulted with his wife on all major decisions.
Later nicknamed the “Steel Magnolia” by the press – a reference she did not mind, saying once in an interview with C-SPAN that “steel is tough and magnolia is southern” – Rosalynn was naturally shy and her knees would knock together when she had to give a speech in the early days of her husband’s political career in the 1960s.
But by the time he announced his presidential campaign in December 1974, she was a seasoned politician herself.
Describing her transformation from housewife to political partner, Carter aide Stuart Eizenstat said, “This shy woman blossomed in the most wonderful way.”
It was not long before she would number the president’s jokes so that he would not repeat any of them to the same group. She even started taking memory classes to remember faces and names and typed thank you letters to people her husband had met on the campaign trail. She stayed up until the early hours of the morning to work on her speeches.
Former President Donald Trump made specific note of the Carters’ long marriage in a statement Sunday praising her years of service to the country.
“Melania and I join all Americans in mourning the loss of Rosalynn Carter. She was a devoted First Lady, a great humanitarian, a champion for mental health, and a beloved wife to her husband for 77 years, President Carter,” Trump posted on social media.
First lady from Plains
Carter ran for president as a Washington outsider seeking to distance himself from the paranoia and cynicism of former President Richard Nixon. He had a group of Georgia volunteers, known as the “Peanut Brigade,” campaign for him.
Rosalynn came prepared, carrying a list of five or six questions she wanted asked. Nine times out of 10, she said, the station used the questions she suggested.
“I was getting my message across,” she said in her memoir.
She was the first first lady to work out of the East Wing. Before her, first ladies worked from an office on the second or third floors of the White House in the family’s private residence. And under her watch, full-time positions in the East Wing grew by almost 20%. But her ambitious approach to the role drew criticism, particularly her controversial decision to sit in on her husband’s Cabinet meetings.
As first lady she fought for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have amended the Constitution to outlaw civil rights discrimination based on sex.
“Mrs. Carter would correct him,” Hochman recalled in an interview. “She’d say, ‘No, she never said that. She said, any boy could be president.’
Once he suggested a weekly lunch, she began to organize such conversations, putting important notes in a brown leather folder. The folder sat on her desk in her bedroom and she stuck notes in it throughout the week. Mental health crusade
Rosalynn Carter’s signature issue was mental health. When she was campaigning for her husband during his 1970 race for governor, she was overwhelmed by the number of people who asked her what she would do for a relative dealing with mental illness.
Up until then, she had been planning to chair the committee.
“There is, however, no problem with you being designated as honorary chairperson,” she said, amid laughter from reporters. “So I’m going to be a very active honorary chairperson.”
“Thanks to her mental health advocacy, more people live with better care and less stigma.”
As first lady, she tried to be in the family’s private quarters to greet 9-year-old daughter Amy by 4 p.m. on school days, and at 6:30 p.m. they had dinner together most nights. Amy was the first presidential child to attend a public school since Theodore Roosevelt’s son.
‘I am much more political than Jimmy’
In the White House, Rosalynn would urge her husband to put off controversial decisions until after his reelection. At first, leaders and the press were skeptical about a first lady taking such an important political trip, but eventually they realized that she had a direct line to the president.