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Remembering Rosalynn Carter, 1927-2023
Rest in peace.
Rosalynn Carter, co-founder of the Carter Center, former first lady, and longtime advocate for mental health awareness, died Sunday in her hometown of Plains, Georgia. She was 96.
Born in Plains in 1927, Eleanor Rosalynn Carter was delivered with the help of Lillian Carter, a nurse and the mother of her own future spouse, the future President Jimmy Carter. In his 2015 memoir, A Full Life: Reflections at 90, Carter’s husband recalled being brought over to meet the “newest baby on the street” when he was three. While they were raised in the same small community, they would not grow close until both were young adults.
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Baby Rosalynn was the first child born to Wilburn Edgar Smith and Frances Allethea Murray. Three siblings would follow, including Lillian Allethea, who was called “Allethea” but named after the aforementioned Lillian Carter.
Wilburn was a farmer who also owned the first auto body shop in Sumter County. Frances was a homemaker and a college graduate. Her advanced education was not exactly the exception for young American women of her era, but it was certainly not the rule. It was particularly unusual for a wife and mother in a rural agricultural community.
When Rosalynn was only 13, her father died of leukemia. He was 44. Before he passed away, young Rosalynn promised him that, like her mother, she would complete a college education before getting married.
Both Rosalynn and her mother took on extra work, the future first lady being charged with the bulk of housekeeping and child-rearing work, as well as elder care for her grandfather.
In the grand tradition of good, quiet girls who do a thousand things right, she managed to juggle her home duties with excellent grades, becoming the valedictorian of the Class of 1944 at her high school. She and the future president began dating while she was in her teens, but she turned down his first marriage proposal in order to honor her promise to her late father.
Decades before she became a passionate advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment, Rosalynn became a junior college graduate at the age of 18. While a college education was much more common for women of her era than that of her mother’s, it was still an unusual achievement for a small town girl from a working class family.
That same year, she married US Naval Academy graduate Jimmy Carter. This launched Mrs. Carter into a life that soon proved more financially secure than her own upbringing, but was at least as busy. Like many active-duty Navy spouses then and now, Mrs. Carter took on the vast majority of childrearing duties as well as the management of household finances.
Her official biography reports that she had three sons in three different Navy ports, becoming the business manager at the family farm when the Carters returned to their hometown, where daughter Amy was born. In a vivid passage, the New York Times obituary cites her 1984 memoir, First Lady from Plains, to show that the homecoming was not a happy one for Mrs. Carter, then in her late twenties:
But when Mr. Carter’s father died in 1953 and her husband told her that they were moving back to Plains to take over the family peanut business, Mrs. Carter became distraught. She cried and screamed, she recalled in her memoir. She couldn’t bear the thought of returning to the small town they had left, or of living so close to her strong-willed mother and her strong-willed mother-in-law.
“It was the most serious argument of our marriage,” she wrote.
Unlike many of their community members, the Carters supported school desegregation. And while her natural shyness made some in Plains regard her as aloof and frosty, she recognized that it would play even worse on the campaign trail. She worked through her phobia of public speaking to become as public a political wife as any other.
When Carter’s husband became governor of Georgia, she chose as her primary focus the promotion of good mental health care for residents of the state. She also campaigned for childhood immunizations in order to combat infant mortality from preventable illnesses.
She was her husband’s closest confidante and political adviser. The wider public did not see any trace of the “aloofness” of which she was accused as a younger woman. She managed to embody a widely appealing sweetness that did not exactly hide her backbone of steel, nor her strong opinions.
Like all women, she was so much more than her spouse, or her education, or her children. Her sharp political acumen and instinctive business sense were surely just as inherently “feminine” as her soft-spoken presentation.
Mrs. Carter often attended meetings of her husband’s cabinet, accompanied him to meetings with heads of state that went way beyond ceremony and frivolity, and edited or helped write many of his speeches. She raised millions of dollars to support Cambodian refugees, and advised — or, well, told — her husband to increase the quota for refugees from Cambodia and to direct more aid to the impoverished country.
Her career as first lady was not without mistakes. She attracted widespread admonishment for privately asking the president’s brother, Billy, to use his influence with the Libyan government to help free 66 American hostages in Iran. Billy Carter was already under investigation due to ties to Libya. Apparently, President Carter did not know about the request, and the incident created a brief scandal.
Carter and his administration went on to negotiate the release of the hostages, but because it did not actually occur until after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, Reagan is often given credit for it.
While her missteps were rare, not all of her successes lasted beyond her time in the administration. Again, from the Times obituary:
The chief legislation she championed — the Mental Health Systems Act, which set up support and financing for community mental health centers — passed in 1980, though it was later scrapped by the Reagan administration. Another measure she had long sought — for health insurance to cover mental illness just as it covered physical illness — eventually passed but not until 2008, when President George W. Bush signed it into law.
The Carters made no effort to hide her active role in the administration. Still, she was generally considered nonthreatening by the mainstream media precisely because she did not declare any political aspirations of her own.
Considering her natural inclination to quiet and privacy, it is all the more impressive that Mrs. Carter became a formidable political figure, as well as a lifelong advocate for those less fortunate than herself.
Back to her official biography:
After what she called “involuntary retirement” to Plains in 1981, her working relationship with her husband expanded. In 1982, they together founded The Carter Center in Atlanta, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for people at home and in the developing world through programs to alleviate suffering and advance human rights. As emissaries for the Center, the Carters circled the globe many times on nonpolitical campaigns to eradicate Guinea worm disease and other neglected tropical diseases, increase agricultural production in Africa, monitor elections in nascent democracies, urge greater compliance with international human rights standards, and resolve conflicts. As a full partner providing direction and vision for the Center, Mrs. Carter accompanied the former president as an active participant, observant note-taker, and thoughtful advisor on high-profile peace missions, including in Bosnia, Cuba, Sudan, Ethiopia, and North Korea.
The Carters famously became extremely active with Habitat for Humanity. Among many other nonprofit endeavors, Mrs. Carter also created the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism “to encourage accurate, in-depth reporting about mental health issues.” Her specific dedication to the cause of good mental healthcare for all was unmatched by any other first lady and, it could be argued, any American president in history.
Eleanor Rosalynn Smith Carter is survived by four children, 11 of her 12 grandchildren, and her spouse of 77 years. In lieu of flowers, the Carter family requests that the public consider a contribution to the Carter Center’s Mental Health Program or the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers.
There are many photographs of Rosalynn Carter available for public use. The one seen above comes from a time before she was married, before she enjoyed financial comfort, and before she was a public figure.
It is an early portrait of a woman who, near the end of her life, would publicly disclose her diagnosis of dementia, and whose family would advocate that other families use this news as an opportunity to discuss end-of-life care with their loved ones.
It is an image of a hardworking, shy teenager who had already spent her adolescence raising children, caring for an ailing elder, and comforting a grieving widow.
It is a picture of a girl who was already changing the world, starting with the one inside her family home.
In that way, and in many others, she exemplified the values that Christians purport to embody: kindness, charity, and love. May her memory be cherished by those who loved her and by those whose lives she helped change for the better.