Rosalynn Carter, the wife of former President Jimmy Carter and a longtime mental health advocate and humanitarian, was surrounded by her family in Plains, Ga., on Sunday. died at her home, according to the Carter Center. She was 96 years old.
The Carter Center announced Friday that Rosalynn Carter remains in hospice care. His family told him earlier this year that he had dementia. Jimmy Carter, 99, has been in hospice care since February.
“Rosalynn was my equal partner in everything I accomplished,” the former president said in a statement. “He gave me wise guidance and encouragement when I needed it. As long as Roslyn was in the world, I always knew someone loved and supported me.”
In a joint statement issued Sunday, President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden remembered the former first lady’s “hope, warmth and optimism.” They praised Carter’s support for equal rights, as well as his advocacy on mental health issues and other causes. “Countless people’s lives are better, fuller and brighter because of Rosalynn Carter’s life and legacy,” the White House said in a statement.
Former President George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush also praised Rosalynn Carter on Sunday, calling her a “woman of honor and strength.”
“There was no one greater advocate for President Carter, and their partnership set an amazing example of loyalty and integrity. He left an important legacy in his work to decriminalize mental health. We join President Carter and our fellow citizens in sending our condolences to his family,” the two prepared said in a statement.
Rosalynn Carter was first lady from 1977 to 1981 and was dubbed “Steel Magnolia” by the press during her years in the White House for the toughness she displayed behind the gentle persona she outwardly embraced. Throughout Jimmy Carter’s time in public office, she was her husband’s closest political adviser. She also revolutionized and professionalized the First Lady role by expanding the office beyond hostess duties.
She lived most of her life in the Carters’ hometown of Plains and was deeply involved in humanitarian work through the Carter Center in Atlanta, an organization she founded with her husband after leaving the White House.
A youthful romance with Jimmy Carter
Eleanor Rosalynn Smith was born in 1927 in Plains, a small rural town of less than a thousand people where church and school were at the center of her life.
Growing up during the Great Depression, Carter often didn’t realize her family was poor because some of the rich around her were.
His father earned a living as a farmer and owner of the county’s first auto shop. After she died of cancer when she was just 13 years old, Carter took on a caring role as the oldest of four siblings.
“She came from humble roots,” said Cathy Cade, a senior fellow at the Carter Center who worked with Carter in the White House. “She was really a woman of the late 19th century, a time when life was organized in the rural South.”
When she was a teenager, she saw a photo of close friend Ruth Carter’s older brother Jimmy, whom she had met but did not know well.
“When Rosalynn saw Jimmy’s photo on her best friend’s wall, she thought he was the most handsome man she’d ever seen,” said Kate Anderson Brower, author of the book First Woman. “And she asked Ruth if she could take her photo home.”
The couple first went on a date in 1945 when she was a student at Georgia Southwestern College and he was attending the US Naval Academy. They married the following year, beginning a partnership that would span more than 75 years.
While her husband was in the Navy, Carter managed the household and cared for their three young sons. They later had a daughter, Amy, who spent part of her childhood in the White House.
After Jimmy Carter’s father died in 1953, they returned to the field and took over the family peanut farming business in Sumter County. That business partnership evolved politically when Jimmy Carter ran for the Georgia state senate in 1962. He was then elected governor of Georgia in 1970, and made Roslyn Carter the state’s first lady.
But when she arrived at the governor’s mansion, according to Cade, she “felt overwhelmed” by her new role and life in the public eye.
“It was very stressful at first, but she adapted quickly,” Cade said. “She felt that her faith would help her cope with the stress of this new and challenging situation.”
Carter was an advocate for her husband and mental health care
When India decided to run for president, Carter spent nearly two years campaigning. Although she was a shy and nervous public speaker in her own right, Hay thrived on the campaign trail and, according to Brower, worked “tirelessly” to introduce her husband, who was unknown outside of Georgia, to the country.
“He would also find the best high antenna in town and go to it, whether it was a TV or radio station,” Brower said. “Got a list of questions she wanted to ask him.”
After her husband was elected president, Carter ushered in a new era as first lady.
She attended cabinet meetings and was only the second first lady to testify before Congress. According to Brower, she took a professional approach to the role, exemplified by the fact that she was the first presidential wife to carry a briefcase into the office on a daily basis.
“I think Rosalynn was a feminist and someone who wanted to be a true partner to her husband,” Brower said. “And he saw no reason not to do so.”
Carter’s top priority in the White House was mental health. It was a passion that developed years ago while preaching across Georgia and hearing from people whose family members struggled with mental health.
At the time, Georgia had few community-based mental health services, especially for children, and Carter became concerned about shortages in state resources, including hospitals and institutions that abused patients.
As First Lady of Georgia, Carter encouraged her husband to establish the Governor’s Commission on Mental Health, which outlined an effective plan to shift treatment from large institutions to community centers.
“She really started the effort to modernize mental health care in this country,” Cadde said. “And the mental health care system we have today reflects his 50 years of advocacy.”
Carter was also an early advocate for reducing the stigma surrounding mental illness and, in speeches, often framed mental health care as a “basic human right”. In 1980, President Carter signed the Mental Health System Act, which provided funding for community mental health clinics, one of many accomplishments attributed, at least in part, to his wife’s advocacy in the US and worldwide.
Life after the White House
After Jimmy Carter lost his re-election bid in 1980, the Carters returned to Plains in what they called “involuntary retirement,” a transition that may have been more difficult for Roslyn Carter than for her husband.
“She strongly believed that her husband was the best person to be president of the United States,” Cade said. “He truly believed there was still work to be done.”
Carter’s work on their home in 1987 helped protect her mind from the devastating loss.
“We didn’t know what we were going to do with the rest of our lives. And suddenly we had to shape the house,” she said. “We were gone from home for 10 years.”
Soon after, the former president and first lady founded the Carter Center, which focused on a number of causes, including the near-eradication of Guinea worm disease in Africa and parts of Asia, and monitoring elections around the world.
President Bill Clinton awarded the Carters the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1999, saying the couple had “done more good for more people in more places than any other couple on the face of the earth.”
In 2019, the Carters became the longest-married presidential couple and celebrated their 75th anniversary two years later. They often tried new things together and accumulated a long list of shared hobbies, such as playing tennis, bird-watching, turkey hunting, fly-fishing and skiing.
“The best thing I ever did was marry Rosa,” Jimmy Carter said in 2015.
Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter had four children, 12 grandchildren, and 14 great-grandchildren.
Once asked how she wanted to be remembered, the former first lady said, “I want people to think that I took advantage of the opportunities I had and did the best I could.”