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Rosalynn Carter changed the role of first lady

The wife of former President Jimmy Carter has died at age 96

Rosalynn Carter and her husband, former President Jimmy Carter, in 2010 Associated Press/Photo by John Amis

Rosalynn Carter changed the role of first lady

Rosalynn Carter, the first lady to President Jimmy Carter who advocated for mental health and humanitarian causes alongside her husband, died Sunday at her home in Plains, Ga. She was 96.

As the wife of the 39th president, Rosalynn Carter took a decidedly active role in her husband’s work, passing on the usual hostess and charitable duties often taken up by first ladies. She took notes in Cabinet meetings, attended major briefings, maintained a private Wednesday business lunch in the Oval Office with her husband, and served as his personal emissary to Latin America. Even so, she took care not to overstep her boundaries as an unelected official—she didn’t speak in Cabinet meetings and only privately shared her opinions with the president.

As president, Jimmy Carter respected and solicited his wife’s opinions. “Ros, what think?” he would write on policy papers. He called her his “best friend and chief adviser.”

A long-time advocate for people with mental illness, Rosalynn Carter oversaw an advisory board to provide better services for the mentally ill. The board’s recommendations would become the Mental Health Systems Act, which Jimmy Carter signed into law in 1980.

Along with her husband, Rosalynn was also a committed evangelical Christian. Both were longtime members of Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, where Jimmy Carter would draw crowds to the Sunday school classes he taught. While her pro-abortion beliefs and support for women clergy matched the views of the Carters’ moderate Democratic base, they clashed with their denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention.

Eleanor Rosalynn Smith was born in 1927 in rural Plains, Ga., the eldest of four children to working-class parents Allethea Murray Smith and Wilburn Edgar Smith. When her father died, 13-year-old Rosalynn helped her mom manage the house as the family struggled on a shoestring budget. By 18, she enrolled in Georgia Southwestern College and started dating a young Naval Academy midshipman named Jimmy Carter. “She’s the girl I want to marry,” he told his mother after his first date with 17-year-old Rosalynn. Both natives of Plains, they grew up as friends and neighbors and wed in 1946, when Rosalynn was 19.

Jimmy entered politics in 1962 and rose quickly, winning a seat in the Georgia Senate, the Georgia governorship in 1970, and then the White House in 1976. Rosalynn crisscrossed the country on solo campaign trips promoting her husband, a relative unknown at the time, responding to the many Americans who came to ask her, “Jimmy who?”

During her time in the White House, the federal government more formally recognized first lady as a bona fide federal position, green-lighting funding for a dedicated staff and making Rosalynn Carter the first president’s wife to maintain a separate office in the East Wing. She used this heightened profile to embark on a seven-nation diplomatic tour of Latin America in 1978. “I was determined to be taken seriously,” she said.

After Jimmy Carter lost his bid for a second term to Ronald Reagan, the Carters returned to Georgia where they founded and devoted more than 40 years to the Carter Center. The nonprofit works to resolve international conflict and promotes democracy, human rights, and economic development. Jimmy Carter’s international conflict resolution work earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. That same year, Rosalynn Carter’s work on mental health programs earned her a place in the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

The Carters were the longest-married presidential couple at 77 years. They said their secrets to a long marriage included sharing hobbies like bird watching, offering mutual support, and relying on their Christian faith. They read the Bible together every night. Rosalynn Carter is survived by her husband, who is 99 years old and receiving hospice care. They have four children and 25 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

“Marry the best spouse,” Jimmy Carter told People magazine in 2019, “someone who will take care of you and engage and do things to challenge you and keep you alive and interested in life.”

Juliana Chan Erikson

Juliana is a correspondent covering marriage, family, and sexuality as part of WORLD’s Relations beat. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and earned a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Juliana resides in the Washington, D.C., metro area with her husband and three children.

This keeps me from having to slog through digital miles of other news sites. —Nick

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