Rosalynn Carter: A Tribute to the Transformative Former First Lady and Mental Health Advocate

Rosalynn Carter

According to the Carter Center, former President Jimmy Carter’s wife and longtime mental health advocate and humanitarian, Rosalynn Carter, passed away on Sunday in the comfort of her home, located at the Carter Center. She was 96 years old.

The Carter Center announced that Rosalynn Carter was in hospice care on Friday. Earlier this year, her family had revealed that she had been diagnosed with dementia. Jimmy Carter, aged 99, is currently under hospital care.

Jimmy Carter, the former president, said in a statement, “Rosalynn was my equal partner in everything I did.” She was my closest advisor and an important leader whenever I needed her guidance.”

President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden, in a joint statement released on Sunday, remembered the former First Lady for her “hope, enthusiasm, and optimism.” They praised her advocacy for mental health issues and other causes, highlighting her legacy as a shining example that has made countless lives better.

Former President George W. Bush and former First Lady Laura Bush also paid tribute to Rosalynn Carter on Sunday, describing her as a “woman of dignity and strength.”

“There was no lawyer greater than President Carter, and his partnership with her leaves an enduring legacy of loyalty and devotion. She leaves behind a magnificent legacy in tarnishing mental health in her work,” the family stated in a prepared statement.

Rosalynn Carter served as the First Lady from 1977 to 1981, and during her years in the White House, she was affectionately called “Steel Magnolia” by the press for her gentle demeanor with a strong personality. While at the public office of Jimmy Carter, she served as his close political advisor. She expanded the role of the First Lady beyond hosting duties, bringing a revolutionary and professional approach.

rosalynn carter

Most of her life was spent in the field of the Carters’ hometown Plains, and in Atlanta, she remained deeply involved in humanitarian work through the Carter Center after leaving the White House with her husband.

Rosalynn Carter’s life and legacy were celebrated by President Carter, and former President George W. Bush and former First Lady Laura Bush on Sunday.

Now, a little about the early life of Eleanor Rosalynn Smith, born in 1927 in Plains, a small rural town of fewer than a thousand people, where church and school were central to her life.

Growing up during the Great Depression, Carter often remarked that she didn’t feel her family was poor because there were happy people around her. Her father worked as a farmer and later as the owner of the county’s first auto repair shop. After his death from cancer when she was just 13, Rosalynn took on the responsibility of caring for her four siblings.

A senior official at the Carter Center, Kathy Cade, who worked with Carter in the White House, said, “She came from humble roots, those hardworking folks in the White House with Carter. She was truly a woman of the late 19th century in terms of what life was like in rural South at that time.”

When she was a teenager, she saw a picture of Jimmy Carter’s older brother, Jemi, on her best friend Ruth Carter’s wall but didn’t know him well.

“When Rosalynn saw a picture of Jemi on her best friend’s wall, she thought he was the most beautiful man she had ever seen, something she had never seen in her life,” said Kate Andersen Brower, the author of “First Women.” “And she asked Ruth if she could take his picture home.”

rosalynn carter

Rosalynn Carter’s incredible journey—from her modest upbringing in Plains to her powerful position as the First Lady and her unwavering dedication to humanitarian causes—comes to an end with this.

This couple first crossed paths in 1945 while she was attending Georgia Southwestern College and he was enrolled in the U.S. Naval Academy. The following year, they tied the knot, beginning a union that would span over 75 years.

Carter took care of their three small boys and ran the household while her husband was serving in the Navy. Amy, their daughter, was raised in the White House for a portion of her childhood after they had her.

Jimmy Carter’s parents returned to the country after his father passed away in 1953, taking over the family peanut company in Sumter County. When Jimmy Carter entered the Georgia State Senate race in 1962, this business partnership finally paid off politically. Rosalynn Carter became Georgia’s First Lady after he was elected governor of the state in 1970.

But Kate Andersen Brower claims that she felt “compelled” by her new role and the attention of the public when she arrived at the governor’s mansion.

“It was a lot of pressure at first, but she adjusted quickly,” Brower stated. She believed that her faith would guide her through this unfamiliar and difficult circumstance.”

In addition to being a homemaker, Rosalynn Carter supported her husband’s legal and mental health needs.

When her husband decided to run for president, Rosalynn coordinated campaigns across the country for almost two years. Despite being naturally reserved and shy, she emerged on the campaign trail, working tirelessly to introduce her husband to a nation that wasn’t familiar with the Carters, especially outside of Georgia.

“She will find the tallest antenna in any town, and she will go there because there was a TV or radio station,” Brower stated. “And she will come with a list of questions she wanted to be asked.”

After her husband’s election as president, Rosalynn Carter ushered in a new era as the First Lady.

She attended Cabinet meetings and became the second First Lady to testify before Congress. According to Brower, she embraced a professional style for the role, setting an example as the first First Lady who brought a daily briefing to the office, ensuring she was well-informed.

“In my mind, Rosalynn was a feminist and someone who wanted to be her husband’s true partner,” Brower stated. “And she saw no reason why she shouldn’t be allowed to do so.”

Mental health was Rosalynn Carter’s primary focus in the White House. This was the passion she had cultivated years before when she was spearheading a statewide campaign in Georgia and heard stories from families struggling with mental health issues.

At that time, Georgia had community-based mental health services, especially for children, and Carter was concerned about the lack of resources due to the state’s fiscal constraints, including hospitals and facilities notorious for mistreating patients.

As the First Lady of Georgia, Carter urged her husband to establish a Governor’s Commission on Mental Health, which outlined an ambitious plan to shift treatment from large institutions to community centers.

Kate said, “She really began efforts to reshape mental health care in this country.” “And the mental health care system we have today reflects her 50 years of advocacy in various ways.”

Carter frequently referred to mental health treatment as a “basic human right” in her speeches and was an early supporter of lowering the stigma associated with mental illness. One of her many accomplishments, at least partially due to her advocacy at the national and international levels, was the signing of the Mental Health Systems Act by President Carter in 1980, which provided funding for community mental health clinics.

Life After the White House

After Jimmy Carter’s defeat in the 1980 re-election bid, the Carters faced a “reluctant retirement” back to private life—a transition that proved more challenging for Rosalynn in comparison to her husband’s political race.

Kate said, “She was very reluctant to believe that her husband was not the best person to become the President of the United States.” “She truly believed that there was still work to be done.”

In 1987, Carter told NPR that working on their Plains farm helped distract her from the heartbreaking loss.

She said, “We didn’t know what we were going to do with the rest of our lives. And suddenly we had to shape a house.” “We’d been away from home for 10 years.”

Soon after, the former President and First Lady established the Carter Center, focusing on various issues, including the near-eradication of Guinea worm disease in parts of Africa and Asia and overseeing elections worldwide.

The Carters were given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton in 1999, who said that they had “done more good things in more places for more people than any other couple on the face of the Earth.”

The Carters celebrated their 75th anniversary and became the longest-married presidential couple in 2019. They kept trying out new things and developed a lengthy list of common interests, which included tennis, fly fishing, skiing, birdwatching, and turkey hunting.

In 2015, Jimmy Carter remarked, “The best thing I ever did was marrying Rosalynn.”

The Carters had four children, 12 grandchildren, and 14 great-grandchildren. When asked how they would like to be remembered, the former First Lady said, “I would like people to think I took advantage of my opportunities and did my best.”

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