Rosalynn Carter Biography
Eleanor Rosalynn Smith
August 18, 1927
|Died||November 19, 2023 (aged 96)
Plains, Georgia, U.S.
|Education||Georgia Southwestern College|
Who Is Rosalynn Carter
Eleanor Rosalynn Carter Smith born on August 18, 1927, and dead on November 19, 2023) was an American writer and activist who served as the First Lady of the United States from 1977 to 1981, as the wife of President Jimmy Carter. For the decades she was in public service, she was a leading advocate for numerous causes, including mental health.
Carter was born and raised in Plains, Georgia, graduated as valedictorian of Plains High School, and soon after attended Georgia Southwestern College, where she graduated in 1946. She first became attracted to her husband, also from Plains, after seeing a picture of him in his U.S. Naval Academy uniform, and they married in 1946. Carter helped her husband win the governorship of Georgia in 1970 and decided to focus her attention in the field of mental health when she was that state’s first lady. She campaigned for her husband during his successful bid to become President of the United States in the 1976 election, defeating incumbent Republican President Gerald Ford.
Carter was politically active during her husband’s presidency, though declared that she had no intention of being a traditional first lady. During his term of office, Carter supported her husband’s public policies as well as his social and personal life. In order to remain fully informed, she sat in on Cabinet meetings at the invitation of the President. Carter also represented her husband in meetings with domestic and foreign leaders, including as an envoy to Latin America in 1977. He found her to be an equal partner. She campaigned for his re-election bid in the 1980 election, which he lost to Republican Ronald Reagan.
After leaving the White House in 1981, Carter continued to advocate for mental health and other causes, and wrote several books. She and her husband contributed to the expansion of the nonprofit housing organization Habitat for Humanity. Carter was the second-longest-lived first lady after Bess Truman and was the longest-married first lady. She and her husband received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1999. She died on November 19, 2023, two days after it had been announced that she had entered hospice care.
Rosalynn Carter Early life
Eleanor Rosalynn Smith was born on August 18, 1927, in Plains, Georgia. She was the eldest of four children of Wilburn Edgar Smith, an auto mechanic, bus driver, and farmer, and Frances Alethea “Allie” Murray Smith, a teacher, dressmaker and postal worker. Her brothers were William Jerrold “Jerry” Smith (1929–2003), an engineer, and Murray Lee Smith (1932–2003), a teacher and minister. Her sister, Lillian Allethea (Smith) Wall (born 1936), known as Allethea, named for her mother and for Lillian Gordy Carter (the Smith and Carter families being friends), is a real estate broker. Rosalynn was named after Rosa Wise Murray, her maternal grandmother. Smith’s grand-uncle W.S. Wise was one of the American Brazilians known as Confederados who emigrated from the United States to the Brazilian Empire after the Civil War.
Smith’s family lived in poverty, although she later said that she and her siblings were unaware of it, because even though their family “didn’t have much money […] neither did anyone else, so as far as we knew, we were well off”. Churches and schools were at the center of her family’s community, and the people of Plains were familiar with each other. Smith played with the boys during her early childhood since no girls on her street were her age. She drew buildings and was interested in airplanes, which led her to believe that she would someday become an architect.
Rosalynn’s father died of leukemia in 1940 when she was thirteen. She called the loss of her father the conclusion of her childhood. Thereafter, she helped her mother raise her younger siblings, as well as assisting in the dressmaking business in order to meet the family’s financial obligations. Rosalynn would credit her mother with inspiring her own independence and said that she learned from her mother that “you can do what you have to do”. At Plains High School, Rosalynn worked hard to achieve her father’s dream of seeing her go to college. Rosalynn graduated as a salutatorian at Plains High School. Soon after, she attended Georgia Southwestern College and graduated in 1946.
Rosalynn first dated Jimmy Carter in 1945 while he was attending the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis. She became attracted to him after seeing a picture of him in his Annapolis uniform.The two were riding in the back seat of the car of Ruth Carter Stapleton’s boyfriend when Jimmy surprised Rosalynn by kissing her. This was the first time that Rosalynn had ever allowed a boy to do so on the first date. Rosalynn agreed to marry Jimmy in February 1946 when she went to Annapolis with his parents. The two scheduled their marriage to take place in July and kept the arrangement secret. Rosalynn was hesitant to tell her mother she had chosen to marry instead of continuing her education. On July 7, 1946, they married in Plains. Their marriage caused Rosalynn to cancel her plans to attend Georgia State College for Women, where she had planned to study interior design. The couple had four children: John William “Jack” (b. 1947), James Earl “Chip” III (b. 1950), Donnel Jeffrey “Jeff” (b. 1952), and Amy Lynn (b. 1967).
Rosalynn Carter Politics Career
First Lady of Georgia
After helping her husband win the governorship of Georgia in 1970, Rosalynn decided to focus her attention mainly on the field of mental health when she was that state’s First Lady. She was appointed to the Governor’s Commission to Improve Services for the Mentally and Emotionally Handicapped. Many of the Commission’s recommendations were approved and became law. In August 1971, Carter engaged in a statewide tour of mental health facilities across Georgia. She described her efforts on behalf of mentally disabled children as her proudest achievement as First Lady of Georgia.
Carter also served as a volunteer at the Georgia Regional Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, and for four years was honorary chairperson for the Georgia Special Olympics.
Among wives of Georgia legislators, she was considered a model and was revered for her traits and appearance. Her activities included entertaining as many as 75 people a week at the Governor’s Mansion. Governor Carter once claimed that he had supported the Equal Rights Amendment while his wife was opposed to the measure, the First Lady privately confronting him upon hearing news of the claim.
1976 presidential campaign
When her husband’s gubernatorial term ended in January 1975, Rosalynn, Jimmy, and Amy Carter returned to Plains. Jimmy had already announced his plans to run for President of the United States. Rosalynn returned to the campaign trail, this time on a national quest to gather support for her husband. She campaigned alone on his behalf in 41 states. Because of her husband’s obscurity at the time, she often had to answer the question, “Jimmy who?” She promoted the establishment of additional daycare facilities and adjustments to “Social Security and so many other things to help the elderly.”
During the months when she was campaigning across the country, she was elected to the board of directors of the National Association of Mental Health, honored by the National Organization for Women with an Award of Merit for her vigorous support for the Equal Rights Amendment, and received the Volunteer of the Year Award from the Southwestern Association of Volunteer Services.
Rosalynn sat on the balcony at Madison Square Garden with friends and family the night of the nomination while her husband was with his mother and daughter. She had “butterflies in her stomach,” until the Ohio delegation announced its votes were for her husband. Rosalynn wished she could have been with him at that time. The Carters met with all the potential running mates and instantly gained an affinity for Walter Mondale after meeting with him and his wife Joan. Following the election, the Carters traveled to the White House and met with President Ford and First Lady Betty Ford, the latter becoming a role model for Rosalynn.
Rosalynn Carter Personal life
Marriage and family
Their families were already acquainted when Rosalynn first dated Jimmy Carter in 1945 while he was attending the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis. She became attracted to him after seeing a picture of him in his Annapolis uniform. The two were riding in the back seat of the car of Ruth Carter Stapleton’s boyfriend when Jimmy surprised Rosalynn by kissing her. This was the first time that Rosalynn had ever allowed a boy to do so on the first date. Rosalynn agreed to marry Jimmy in February 1946 when she went to Annapolis with his parents. The two scheduled their marriage to take place in July and kept the arrangement secret. Rosalynn resisted telling her mother she had chosen to marry instead of continuing her education. On July 7, 1946, they married in Plains. The marriage canceled Rosalynn’s plans to attend Georgia State College for Women, where she had planned to study interior design.
The couple had four children: John William “Jack” (b. 1947), James Earl “Chip” III (b. 1950), Donnel Jeffrey “Jeff” (b. 1952), and Amy Lynn (b. 1967). Due to Jimmy’s military duties, the first three were born in different parts of the country and away from Georgia. During those duties, Rosalynn watched over and enjoyed the independence she had gained from raising the children on her own. However, their relationship faced its first major crisis when she opposed Jimmy’s resignation to return to Plains in 1953 after he learned his father was dying. Jimmy reflected that she “avoided talking to me as much as possible” as a result of his decision and would interact with him through their children. They were fans of the New York Yankees until the Braves moved to Atlanta. They said they never went to bed arguing with each other.
In 1953, after her husband left the Navy, Rosalynn helped run the family peanut farm and warehouse business, handling accounting responsibilities. Around this time, yearning for another child, the Carters discovered Rosalynn had physical ailments preventing pregnancy. She underwent surgery to remove a large tumor from her uterus 12 years later. Her obstetrician confirmed she could have another child, and their daughter Amy was born thereafter. Rosalynn had different relationships with each member of Jimmy’s family. Becoming friends with his sister, who was two years younger than she, Rosalynn gave her dresses she had outgrown. However, she and Jimmy’s mother, Lillian Gordy Carter, had difficulty living together.
In later years, the couple rode two and a half miles a day on three-wheel electric scooters, and they read the Bible aloud to each other in Spanish before they retired to bed each night.
From 1962 (the year her husband Jimmy was elected to the Georgia State Senate) until her death, she had been active in the political arena. Carter backed Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1964 presidential election, which she stated put her and her family at odds with other Georgians and caused them to develop a closeness with each other over shared values that others opposed.
Jimmy thoroughly consulted with Rosalynn before he mounted a bid for Governor of Georgia in 1966. She traveled to multiple towns throughout the state with promotional materials, visited multiple establishments such as radio stations and newspaper offices, and attended civic organization meetings. In one encounter, she tried endorsing her husband to a man in Washington, Georgia, the latter declaring his support for Republican candidate Bo Callaway before spitting on her. Rosalynn would later describe the encounter as the “worst political experience of my life.” Summarizing the race, Carter wrote, “This was a brief and rushed campaign, but we all learned many things that were helpful to us later.” The 1966 gubernatorial campaign began a new interaction between the Carters, with Rosalynn determining that she would know her husband’s positions on issues and be informed.
The month after the election, Jimmy Carter began campaigning for the 1970 Georgia gubernatorial election. In this campaign, Rosalynn made speeches, which she had not done in prior campaigns. The Carters were separated for most of their travels, and she also began writing speeches for the first time in her political involvement. When she met a Carter campaign worker who confided in Rosalynn that her daughter had a mental illness, the sight of the exhausted woman haunted Carter and became a factor in her eventual focus on mental health. Jimmy would later disclose that the couple’s Georgia years were when they became “keenly aware of the unmet needs of people in our state who suffered from mental and emotional disabilities.”
Mary Prince (an African American woman wrongly convicted of murder, and later pardoned) was Amy’s nanny for most of the period from 1971 until Jimmy Carter’s presidency ended, partly thanks to Rosalynn’s belief in Prince’s innocence.
Health and death
In April 1977, Carter underwent surgery to remove a nonmalignant breast tumor. She underwent a gynecological procedure at Bethesda Naval Hospital in August 1977, which her press secretary Mary Hoyt described as a routine private matter.
In May 2023, the Carter Center announced that Carter had been diagnosed with dementia. The statement also noted that she continued to live at home with her husband – who was in hospice care at the time of the announcement – “enjoying spring and visits with loved ones”. On November 17, 2023, Carter entered hospice care. She died two days later at her home in Plains, Georgia of natural causes, at the age of 96.