Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter died at her home in Plains, Georgia, on Sunday, November 19, 2023. She was 96 years old.
The wife of 39th President Jimmy Carter, Rosalynn was a humanitarian who championed mental health care, the needs of the elderly, and other social justice issues.
After her passing, former President Carter issued a statement: “Rosalynn was my equal partner in everything I ever accomplished. She gave me wise guidance and encouragement when I needed it. As long as Rosalynn was in the world, I always knew somebody loved and supported me.”
Carter was born Eleanor Rosalynn Smith on August 18, 1927, in Plains, Georgia. The eldest of four kids, Carter became responsible for her younger siblings when her father died when she was 13 years old. In 1945 she started dating Jimmy Carter during her freshman year at Georgia Southwestern College.
They got married a year later and moved to Norfolk, Virginia where Jimmy was stationed in the Navy. Their four children – John, James, Donnel, and Amy – were born during his time in the service. In the ‘50s, they moved back to Plains where Carter worked for the family’s peanut business, handling accounting and office management.
Jimmy’s political career began in ’62 when he became a Georgia state senator. Carter aided her husband’s campaign for governor in 1970 and she was an active advisor in his grassroots presidential campaign in ’76. She helped gain support with her down to earth attitude, and campaigned around the country on her own, which was unusual for a potential first lady at the time.
She had already gained notice for her political savvy and concern for social issues, including mental health. When Jimmy took office, it was clear that Carter would not be a first lady content with only making appearances. She was in important briefings, Cabinet meetings, traveled to Latin American countries on behalf of the president, spoke at ceremonial gatherings, and was an honorary member of the mental health commission.
After Jimmy lost reelection in 1980, Carter wrote her memoir, First Lady from Plains, and three books on mental health. In ’82, Rosalynn and Jimmy founded the Carter Center, a nonprofit human rights organization, then she founded the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving in ’89. For over 30 years, Carter hosted annual gatherings at the Carter Center, bringing together mental health experts and advocates.
She and Jimmy were also closely involved in Habitat for Humanity, often appearing at work sites to help with the construction of houses. Both Jimmy and Rosalynn were awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1999.