Rosalynn Carter, one of the most influential first ladies in American history and half of the longest-lived presidential couple, passed away at the age of 96, as announced by the Carter Center. Her husband, former President Jimmy Carter, described her as his equal partner in all his accomplishments and a constant source of wisdom and support.
Early Life and Love Story of Rosalynn Carter
Born Eleanor Rosalynn Smith on August 18, 1927, in Plains, Georgia, she had a modest upbringing. Her future husband, Jimmy Carter, was also from Plains, and their love story began when she was just 17. They first dated when she was a student at Georgia Southwestern College, and he was attending the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Their connection was undeniable, with Jimmy telling his mother after their first date that he had met his future wife.
In her autobiography, Rosalynn Carter revealed that she didn’t accept Jimmy’s first proposal. She was determined to fulfill a promise to her father to finish college. However, on July 7, 1946, shortly after Jimmy’s graduation, they were married. The couple went on to have four children, and their youngest, Amy, would grow up in the White House.
A Transformative First Lady
Rosalynn Carter played a groundbreaking role as first lady. She expanded the traditional role of the first lady beyond that of a hostess to become an active partner in policy and international affairs. This transformation was especially remarkable in an era when most newspapers referred to her simply as “Mrs. Carter.” She had her own office in the White House and occasionally attended Cabinet meetings, setting a new precedent for first ladies.
During her husband’s underdog presidential campaign in 1976, Rosalynn played a pivotal role. She visited more than 40 states on his behalf, connecting with Americans across the country and contributing significantly to his victory.
Rosalynn Carter Global Advocacy for Change
Rosalynn Carter’s impact extended far beyond American borders. She made trips to various countries, advocating for humanitarian causes and earning praise for her knowledge and empathy. Notably, in 1979, she visited tens of thousands of Cambodian refugees in Thailand, shedding light on a humanitarian crisis resulting from years of war, tyranny, and international indifference.
One of her most significant contributions was suggesting that President Jimmy Carter invite Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel and President Anwar Sadat of Egypt to Camp David. This historic peace deal in 1978 became a shining moment in international diplomacy.
Rosalynn Carter Championing Causes
Throughout her life, Rosalynn Carter championed various causes, including the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and mental health advocacy. She worked tirelessly to present ERA in a way that would appeal to mothers, housewives, and Southerners, even though it fell short of the required number of state ratifications.
Rosalynn Carter’s advocacy for mental health was notable. She served as an honorary member of the President’s Commission on Mental Health and lobbied for the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980. Unfortunately, the implementation of this law was left to the incoming Reagan administration, which had little interest in it.
Defender of the United States
Rosalynn Carter was not only a compassionate advocate but also an articulate defender of the United States. In 1978, when Russian writer and dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn criticized America and the West, she responded assertively, highlighting the strength and resilience of the American people.
Post-Presidential Life and Legacy of Rosalynn Carter
After Jimmy Carter failed to win reelection in 1980, the couple returned to Plains. In the decades that followed, they were involved in a seemingly never-ending series of public activities, many of them for charity. They frequently volunteered with Habitat for Humanity, helping to build houses for those in need.
The Carters also founded the Carter Center, an organization committed to human rights, conflict resolution, democracy, and healthcare improvement. Their enduring commitment to humanitarian causes continued to make a positive impact worldwide.
In 2013, Rosalynn Carter expressed delight when the Obama administration issued a rule designed to expand access to mental health care decades after her efforts to do so. She remained active in promoting causes she believed in, even during the 2016 presidential season, when she campaigned for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
In October 2019, the Carters achieved a historic milestone by surpassing George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush as the longest-married presidential couple of all time.
A Life of Service and Compassion
Rosalynn Carter leaves behind a remarkable legacy of improved care for the mentally ill, assistance to the vulnerable in American society, successful peace initiatives, and the advancement of human rights around the globe. A master politician, diplomat, as well as a caring mother and wife, she was intimately involved in every aspect of the Carter presidency.
She is survived by her husband, former President Jimmy Carter, and their four children — Jack, Chip, Jeff, and Amy — as well as 11 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren. Rosalynn Carter’s life of service and compassion serves as an enduring example for all Americans, and her contributions will be remembered for generations to come.