President: Jimmy Carter
Preceded by: Betty Ford
Succeeded by: Nancy Reagan
Born: Eleanor Rosalynn Smith
August 18, 1927
Plains Georgia, U.S.
Spouse(s): Jimmy Carter (m. 1946)
Children: Amy, Jack, Donnel, James
Father: Wilburn Edgar Smith
Mother: Frances Allethea Murray
Rosalynn's father died of leukemia when she was 13. She called the loss of her father the conclusion of her childhood. Thereafter, she helped her mother raise her younger siblings, as well as assisting in the dressmaking business in order to meet the family's financial obligations. Rosalynn would credit her mother with inspiring her own independence and said that she learned from her mother that "you can do what you have to do". At Plains High School, Rosalynn worked hard to achieve her father's dream of seeing her go to college. Rosalynn graduated as salutatorian of Plains High School. Soon after, she attended Georgia Southwestern College, but later dropped out. She had aspirations to go beyond Plains, but she was forced to leave the college due to lack of money and also because of obligations to her mother and siblings.
Marriage and family
Their families were already acquainted when Rosalynn first dated Jimmy Carter in 1945 while he was attending the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis. She developed a crush on him after seeing a picture of him in his Annapolis uniform. The two were riding in the back seat of the car of Ruth Carter's boyfriend when Jimmy surprised Rosalynn by kissing her. This was the first time that Rosalynn had ever allowed a boy to do this on the first date. Rosalynn agreed to marry Jimmy in February 1946 when she went to Annapolis with his parents. The two scheduled their marriage to take place in July and kept the arrangement secret. Rosalynn resented telling her mother she had chosen to marry instead of continuing her education. On July 7, 1946, they married in Plains. The marriage canceled Rosalynn's plans to attend Georgia State College for Women, where she had planned to study interior design.
The couple had four children: John William "Jack" (b. 1947), James Earl "Chip" III (b. 1950), Donnel Jeffrey "Jeff" (b. 1952), and Amy Lynn (b. 1967). Due to Jimmy's military duties, the first three were born in different parts of the country and away from Georgia. During those duties, Rosalynn watched over and enjoyed the independence she had gained from raising the children on her own. However, their relationship faced its first major crisis when she opposed Jimmy's resigning to return to Plains in 1953 after he learned his father was dying. Jimmy reflected that she "avoided talking to me as much as possible" as a result of his decision and would interact with him through their children. After purchasing their first television set, the two became fans of the New York Yankees. They said they never went to bed arguing with each other.
In 1953, after her husband left the Navy, Rosalynn helped run the family peanut farm and warehouse business, handling accounting responsibilities. Around this time and yearning for another child, the Carters discovered Rosaylnn had physical ailments preventing her from having another child, which would only be rectified twelve years later when she underwent surgery for the removal of a large tumor from her uterus, her obstetrician confirming the couple could have another child and their daughter Amy being born thereafter. Since 1962, the year her husband Jimmy was elected to the Georgia State Senate, she has been active in the political arena.
Rosalynn had different relationships with each member of Jimmy's family. Becoming friends with his sister Ruth Carter Stapleton, who was two years younger than she, she gave her dresses she had outgrown. However, she and Jimmy's mother, Lillian Gordy Carter, had difficulty living together.
In later years, the couple rode two and a half miles a day on three-wheel electric scooters, and they read the Bible aloud to each other in Spanish before they retired to bed each night.
On November 22, 1963, Rosalynn was at a beauty parlor at the time she was contacted by her husband and informed of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. She would later write that though the pair were both saddened at the event, a teacher and classmates of their son Chip exclaimed happiness. Carter backed Kennedy's successor Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1964 Presidential election, which she stated put her and her family at odds with other Georgians and caused them to develop a closeness with each other over shared values that others opposed.
Jimmy consulted with Rosalynn thoroughly before mounting a bid for Governor of Georgia in 1966. She traveled to multiple towns throughout the state with promotional materials, visited multiple establishments such as radio stations and newspaper offices, and attending civic organizations meetings. In one encounter, she tried endorsing her husband to a man in Washington, Georgia, the latter declaring his support for Republican candidate Bo Callaway before spitting on her. Rosalynn would later describe the encounter as the "worst political experience of my life." Summarizing the race, Carter wrote, "This was a brief and rushed campaign, but we all learned many things that were helpful to us later. "The 1966 gubernatorial campaign began a new interaction between the Carters, with Rosalynn determining that she would know her husband's positions on issues and be informed.
The month after the election, Jimmy Carter began campaigning for the 1970 Georgia gubernatorial election. In this campaign, Rosalynn made speeches, which she hadn't in prior campaigns. The Carters were separated for most of their travels, and she also began writing speeches for the first time in her political involvement. When she met Carter campaign worker who confided in Rosalyn that her daughter had a mental illness, the sight of the exhausted woman haunted Carter and became a factor in her eventual focus on mental health. Jimmy would later disclose that the couple's Georgia years were when they became "keenly aware of the unmet needs of people in our state who suffered from mental and emotional disabilities."
Mary Prince (an African American woman wrongly convicted of murder, and later pardoned) was Amy's nanny for most of the period from 1971 until Jimmy Carter's presidency ended, partly thanks to Rosalynn's belief in Prince's innocence.
First Lady of the United States
She wrote notes, but never spoke. As she put it, "I was there to be informed so that when I traveled across the country, which I did a great deal, and was questioned by the press and other individuals about all areas of government, I'd know what was going on." When the cultural exchange program Friendship Force International launched at the White House on March 1, 1977, she became honorary chairperson, a position she held until 2002. She joined Lady Bird Johnson and Betty Ford in supporting the unsuccessful campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) at the Houston conference celebrating the International Women's Year in 1977.
For Christmas 1977, she decorated the White House's Christmas tree with ornaments from pine cones, peanuts and egg shells. On July 27, 1978, Carter was the host of "First Lady's Employment Seminar". 200-300 delegates came and shared information to learn how other communities responded to unemployment. Rosalynn remembered 1979 and 1980 as years of never-ending crises, the years having "Big ones and small ones, potential disasters and mere annoyances."
During 1978, Carter became involved with an effort to reform D.C. General Hospital after criticizing the appearance of it, traveling to the hospital for reviews of changing conditions as more work was done in remodeling.
Despite finding time to entertain, the Carters never were able to match their immediate predecessors and Rosalynn never considered it a major part of her job as First Lady. Criticism came towards her role as First Lady by a U.S. diplomat in Brazil, who insisted that women were meant to be kept "at home and that's all." The cultural factor had also caused many to oppose her trip. Critics called her too programmed and disciplined while others said she lacked admirable qualities of Lady Bird Johnson and Betty Ford. Despite this, Rosalynn was pleased by her viewed role as a demanding First Lady and remembered the times of presidents' wives being "confined" to "official hostess" and other demeaning roles. In efforts to advance the appearance of the White House, she accumulated American paintings.
After the Carter administration began losing popularity, Rosalynn advised Gerald Rafshoon be brought on as White House Director of Communications and have key media figures at the White House during "informal, off‐the‐record, deep discussions about issues." Rafshoon was selected and confirmed for the position.
Mental health campaign
In March 1977, during her first interview since becoming First Lady, Carter outlined her goals in focusing on mental health: "For every person who needs mental health care to be able to receive it close to his home, and to remove the stigma from mental health care so people will be free to talk about it and seek help. It's been taboo for so long to admit you had a mental health problem."
Rosalynn Carter served as an active honorary chair of the President's Commission on Mental Health. On behalf of the Mental Health System Bill, enacted in 1980, she testified before a Senate committee, the second First Lady to appear before the Congress (the first being Eleanor Roosevelt). Of her priorities, mental health was the highest. Working to change the nature of government assistance to the mentally ill, Carter wanted to allow people to be comfortable admitting their disabilities without fear of being called crazy.
By the time she had held the office of First Lady for two years, Time magazine called her the "second most powerful person in the United States." Carter was cited by her husband as an equal partner many times, even called her a "perfect extension of myself." In 1977, during an interview, Carter admitted that she quarreled with her husband over his policies but his own decision was what he acted on and denied influencing his major decisions. An interview the following year saw Carter
state that she did not publicly disagree with her husband's policies out of a belief that she "would lose all my effectiveness with him" as well as her opinion that the gesture would not assist in changing his perspective to her own. She outlined that a First Lady could influence officials or the public by discussing an issue or giving attention to it. Biographer MaryAnne Borrelli wrote that Carter did not consider her attempts to portray herself as a traditional wife and influencing factor in her husband's administration would be "viewed by some as dependent upon her husband, by others as lacking accountability, and by still others as doing too little–or too much." Years after leaving the White House, Carter would remain bothered by claims that she exuded too much influence on her husband, insisting they had an equal partnership. Jimmy Carter would later write that the two engaged in discussions on a variety of issues and she was aware of everything within the administration apart from "a few highly secret and sensitive security matters".
Rosalynn represented President Carter in meetings with domestic and foreign leaders, most notably as an envoy to Latin America in 1977. She purposely scheduled so as not to have meetings with any of the heads of state. President Carter said that while his wife had initially been met with hesitance as an American representative, "at the conclusion of those meetings, they now rely on her substantially to be sure that I understand the sensitivities of the people. "Following the Latin America meetings, David Vidal observed, "Mrs. Carter has achieved a personal and diplomatic success that goes far beyond the modest expectations of both her foreign policy tutors at the State Department and her hosts. "In a June 7, 1977 news conference, Carter stated that her meetings with Brazilian leaders included discussions on human rights and her wishes for Brazil to include itself among other countries seeking out a reduction in nuclear weapons via an international study. On December 30, 1977, Carter and National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski met with Stefan Wyszyński at the Cardinal's Warsaw residence. President Carter said the meeting was intended to display American "appreciation for the degree of freedom of worship in the country."
Carter led the American delegation to the May 1978 inauguration of Rodrigo Carazo Odio as President of Costa Rica. In August 1978, Rosalynn led the American delegation to the funeral of Pope Paul VI in Rome.
Rosalynn also led a delegation to Thailand in 1979 to address the problems of Cambodian and Laotian refugees. She examined camps where Cambodian refugees had fled to avoid the combat between the Vietnamese troops and the government of Pol Pot. Helping the refugees, particularly the children, became a special cause for her. She returned to the United States and played a prominent role in speeding up a large appeal for assistance after being affected by the suffering she witnessed during her visit. By the time she had returned, however, her husband met with families of the hostages in Iran. They were more concerned for what they needed to do to get them out over being worried about whether or not they would ever get out. Carter stated that she wanted to return to the US as quickly as possible to mobilize their forces to assist in calming the refugees' plight.
Life in the White House
She was the first First Lady to keep her own office in the East Wing. She also oversaw her family at the White House. Her daughter, Amy, attracted much public attention. The two youngest sons, Chip and Jeff, and their families also lived in the White House. Other members of the family, including son Jack and his wife and children, were frequent visitors. Rosalynn Carter's Secret Service codename was "Dancer". In 1977, Carter reported that her family was divided in their reaction to public perception of them, saying her sons were worried about how they would be perceived living there while she personally thought nothing of it as the public was not financing their residence and she favored the family being together.
On August 16, 1979, Carter released a statement announcing Edith J. Dobelle had accepted "the newly created position of staff director for the East Wing".
After leaving the White House, Carter reflected of Washington, "I love this city. I loved living here and being so close to the seat of power, being a part of the political system. When you watched television you knew the people involved, you were familiar with both sides of the issues."
Equal Rights Amendment
During the 1976 campaign, Carter spoke to feminists of her equal partnership with her husband. In January 1977, prior to the inauguration of her husband, Carter substituted for him in speaking with Senator Birch Bayh over the phone as the latter wanted President-elect Carter to lobby for support of the Equal Rights Amendment being ratified in Indiana. She persuaded Wayne Townsend to switch his vote and the Equal Rights Amendment was approved in an Indiana Senate vote of 26 to 24.[
Of Carter's role in supporting the Equal Rights Amendment, associate professor of religion Elizabeth Flowers said, "[Rosalynn Carter] wanted to temper down some of the more radical elements of feminism, as she saw it, and challenge what she felt were caricatures of the movement. She wanted to be sure that the struggle for ERA really appealed to mainstream America."
During the 1976 election cycle, journalists dubbed Carter the "steel magnolia" for having a fragile and feminine appearance that concealed a "tough as nails" interior. Carter was known for a lack of attention paid to fashion, and her choice to reuse the gown from her husband's swearing in as Governor to his presidential inauguration reinforced this view of her. Carter's public interest in national policy prompted Kandy Stroud of the New York Times to speculate she might become the most activist First Lady since Eleanor Roosevelt. Amid the sinking approval ratings of President Carter, Rosalynn maintained high favorable viewpoints in the eyes of the public, and was tied with Mother Teresa for most admired woman in the world. In April 1979, during her speech as guest speaker at the 1979 Matrix Awards Luncheon of New York Women in Communications Inc., Carter said the issues she was championing were being met with opposition due to their lack of sexiness in being topics a First Lady discusses.