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Carter, Rosalynn (1927—)

Carter, Rosalynn (1927—)

American first lady from 1977 to 1981. Born Eleanor Rosalynn Smith on August 18, 1927, in Plains, Georgia; oldest of four children of Wilburn Edgar (an auto mechanic) and Frances Alletta (Murray) Smith (a seamstress); attended Georgia Southwestern College; married James Earl Carter, known as Jimmy Carter (president of the United States), on July 7, 1946, in Plains, Georgia; children: John (b. 1947); James Earl III, known as Chip (b. 1950); Donnel Jeffrey (b. 1952); Amy Carter (b. 1967).

Rosalynn Eleanor Smith and Jimmy Carter grew up three miles apart in Plains, Georgia, a small hardworking community where religious dedication and community service were the way of life. When Rosalynn was 13, her father died after a long bout with leukemia, leaving her mother Allie Smith with four young children to support. While Allie went to work in the post office and took in sewing, Rosalynn, the eldest, helped with the younger children and earned extra money working in the local beauty parlor giving shampoos. Rosalynn was valedictorian of the Plains High School class of 1944 and briefly commuted to Georgia Southwestern College, where she was president of her sophomore class. She is said to have fallen in love with a photograph of Jimmy Carter even before his sister Ruth Carter arranged for the two to meet when he was home on leave from Annapolis Naval Academy. The two wed in an informal ceremony shortly after his graduation, and Rosalynn, barely 18, embarked on a new life as a navy wife.

For over seven years, each spent in a different city, Rosalynn juggled households and three young sons, while her husband was away at sea. Relishing her new-found independence, she was hard-pressed to give it up when Jimmy decided to leave the navy after his father's death and return home to run the family peanut business. With his brother Billy still in high school, Jimmy saw himself as the only one to carry on his father's lifelong work. Rosalynn adamantly opposed the move, and they made an interminably silent trip back to Plains. It was the first real crisis of the marriage, and Rosalynn experienced a difficult period of adjustment before she resigned herself to life in her hometown. Gradually adopting the business as her own, she worked long hours beside her husband to turn a profit (the first year brought in only $254); she also studied accounting in order to take over the bookkeeping and tax preparation. Any spare time was filled with children, church, and community activities.

Jimmy Carter's political career began in 1962 with a successful run for a Georgia state senate seat. While her husband stumped county to county, Rosalynn both ran the warehouse and campaigned, making phone calls and door-to-door visits. Four years later, his 1966 run for Congress suddenly shifted to a gubernatorial race when the Democratic candidate dropped out due to illness. During this difficult and sometimes dangerous period in Georgia's history, the state was struggling with approaching integration, and Jimmy Carter's liberal views were not popular. He was defeated by Lester Maddox, a staunch segregationist. The disappointment of her husband's loss would remain with Rosalynn a long time.

With plans for a second run for governor underway a month later, Rosalynn found herself pregnant again at age 40. A much hoped for daughter, Amy Lynn, was born in October 1967. The family was further surprised by news that Carter's unpredictable and colorful mother, Lillian Carter ("Miss Lillian"), was joining the Peace Corps at age 68 and would travel to India to assist in a family-planning program.

In 1970, the formally announced campaign that would land Jimmy the governor's seat was underway and demanded Rosalynn's full-time attention. Reluctantly, she left Amy behind to go on the road. Rosalynn overcame her retiring nature to make campaign appearances at factories, livestock sales, rodeos, and even a rattlesnake roundup. With an eye toward practicality, she started her day at fire stations because the food was good, and she learned to double back to the last appearance to pick up discarded campaign literature so it could be recycled.

Religious faith had always guided the Carters' lives. After his first unsuccessful run for governor, Jimmy had an intimate conversation with his sister Ruth Carter Stapleton , who devoted her life to Christian work, and decided, "her much deeper religious life and convictions were what he wanted and needed." During the 1976 campaign, his effort to reaffirm his faith was widely reported as Jimmy Carter's "born again" experience, which Rosalynn maintained was overblown by reporters who did not know what "born again" meant.

Rosalynn also credited a profound renewal of her own faith for helping her through the difficult transition from a simple life in Plains to a public life as first lady of Georgia; her beliefs allowed her to accept the new responsibilities on her own terms while releasing many of the pressures and demands that made her feel frustrated and trapped. As her new outlook brought some order to her busy day-to-day life in the governor's mansion, she worked on projects she regarded as particularly important in Georgia. Appointed to the Governor's Commission to Improve Services for the Mentally and Emotionally Handicapped, she visited every mental health facility in the state. She also acted as honorary chair of the state's Special Olympics and worked with Lady Bird Johnson to start the Georgia Highway Wildflower Program. Rosalynn pushed for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in Georgia and for judicial reforms for women prisoners.

Since Georgia law prevented Jimmy from succeeding himself as governor, in 1975 he announced to the family that he would run for the presidency. Rosalynn, now a seasoned campaigner, took the decision in stride, though she knew it would be an uphill struggle. She served as an advisor, wrote and delivered speeches, helped make staff decisions, and traveled independently in 40 states in order to double the campaign mileage. During one junket, her luggage and best wig were stolen, and she was forced to wear the same outfit for days in a row, washing it out nightly in her hotel room. It was during this 1976 campaign that one reporter referred to her as the "steel magnolia," a name that stuck. The election of outsider Jimmy Carter as president was somewhat of a political miracle. On the brink of his victory, the world was still asking "Jimmy Who?"

The Carters, ever mindful of their humble beginnings, were the first to walk the one-and-a-half miles back to the White House after the inauguration, and that evening Rosalynn wore the same dress she had worn to Jimmy's inauguration ball as governor. She chose the Thaddeus Stevens School for Amy to attend, the first public school for a presidential child since 1906. As first lady, Rosalynn continued to function as a full partner with her husband, acting as his emissary on an unprecedented trip to Latin America. She was also Jimmy's envoy to the Cambodian refugee camps. She toured Central and South America, met the pope in Rome, and attended the inauguration of President Jose Lopez Portillo of Mexico. Like Eleanor Roosevelt before her, Rosalynn was often considered too influential and powerful. Her attendance at Cabinet meetings, though at her husband's invitation, drew particular criticism.

Using her influence as first lady, Rosalynn was anxious to continue her work in the area of mental health. When the president signed the Executive Order creating the President's Commission on Mental Health, she became honorary chair. The work of the commission resulted in the 1980 Mental Health Systems Act, which was passed and funded by Congress to become the first major reform of federal publicly funded mental-health programs since the Community Mental Health Centers Act of 1963. Included in the Systems Act were provisions for housing, insurance coverage, distribution of mental-health personnel, advocacy for mental patients, research and professional recruitment. Rosalynn was also deeply committed to the Equal Rights Amendment and was enormously disappointed that it failed to be ratified during her tenure.

With another campaign on the horizon, Rosalynn was confident that her husband would be elected to another term. Even when the Iranian unrest erupted on November 4, 1979, and 50 Americans were taken hostage at the American Embassy in Iran, she held fast to her belief that Americans would not be taken in by the rhetoric of the Republican nominee, Ronald Reagan. The hostage situation, however, stretched into 444 days, preventing President Carter from campaigning and setting the stage for defeat. Rosalynn felt strongly that her husband had been victimized by the crisis, and she had difficulty overcoming her bitterness at the loss. The day after the inauguration of Reagan, Jimmy Carter flew to Wiesbaden to welcome the hostages back to freedom. For a number of years, Rosalynn would long to return to the world of politics. "Nothing is more thrilling," she wrote, "than the urgency of a campaign—the planning, the strategy sessions, getting out among people you'd never otherwise meet—and the tremendous energy it takes that makes a victory ever so sweet and a loss so devastating."

Back home in Plains, Georgia, the Carters became active in the Habitat for Humanity housing campaign and the Friendship Force, a group that promotes friendship around the world. Rosalynn keeps an office in the Jimmy Carter Presidential Center in Atlanta, Georgia, a nonprofit institution founded in 1982, where she created the Carter Center's Mental Health Task Force, an advisory body that promotes positive change in the mental-health field, which she chairs. She also hosts a yearly symposium on Mental Health Policy, bringing together leaders of the nation's mental-health organizations to address critical issues. In 1991, with Betty Bumpers (wife of U.S. Senator Dale Bumpers of Arkansas), Rosalynn launched a nationwide campaign to publicize the need for early childhood immunizations.

In 1984, Rosalynn completed her autobiography, First Lady from Plains, which was followed in 1987 by a book co-authored with her husband, Everything to Gain: Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life. She published a solo book on the subject of care giving, Helping Yourself Help Others, in 1995.


Carter, Rosalynn. First Lady from Plains. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1984.

Melick, Arden David. Wives of the Presidents. Maplewood, NJ: Hammond, 1977.

Paletta, LuAnn. The World Almanac of First Ladies. NY: World Almanac, 1990.

suggested reading:

Carter, Rosalynn. Helping Yourself Help Others. NY: Random House, 1995.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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