Rosalynn Carter, wife of the thirty-ninth U.S. president, Jimmy Carter, forged a career in public service as one of the nation’s foremost advocates for mental health. Her lifelong dedication to improving life for women, children, the elderly, people with mental illness, and impoverished people worldwide earned her recognition in 2001 as one of only three first ladies ever inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
She was born Eleanor Rosalynn Smith on August 18, 1927, in Plains, the daughter of Wilburn Edgar Smith, an auto mechanic and farmer, and Frances Allethea Murray, a dressmaker. As a child she was shaped by strong religious and family values and an early acceptance of hard work and responsibility. When her father died of leukemia at age forty-four, thirteen-year-old Rosalynn helped her mother tend house and care for her siblings and relatives. She graduated as valedictorian from Plains High School in 1944 and studied at Georgia Southwestern College (later Georgia Southwestern State University).
In 1946 she married her high school classmate Jimmy Carter, after he graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy. The Carters’ three sons were born in different navy ports: John William in 1947, in Portsmouth, Virginia; James Earl III in Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1950; and Donnel Jeffrey in 1952, in New London, Connecticut. Their only daughter, Amy Lynn, was born in 1967, in Plains.
Upon the death of Jimmy’s father in 1953, Rosalynn returned with her husband to Plains, where she helped him run the Carter family’s peanut-farming business and played key roles in his successful political campaigns for the Georgia senate (1963-67), the Georgia governorship (1971-75), and finally the U.S. presidency (1977-81).
As Georgia’s first lady, Rosalynn Carter advanced many charitable causes. Moved by the challenges Georgians faced in caring for loved ones with mental illness, she conceived a lifelong dedication to fighting the stigma against mental illness and improving the quality and availability of mental health care. In the White House she chaired the President’s Commission on Mental Health, holding hearings across the country, testifying before the U.S. Congress, and spearheading passage of the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980.
She worked to create what she described as “a more caring society,” fostering programs and services not only for people with mental illness but also for senior citizens, women, and disenfranchised groups. She lobbied vigorously for the Equal Rights Amendment, mobilized a worldwide coalition to raise tens of millions of dollars for refugees in Cambodia, and brought together all the advocacy organizations for the elderly at a White House roundtable discussion on aging.
In addition to fulfilling the traditional demands of official White House hostess, she helped to shape the role of the modern first lady as a partner with the president, becoming the first presidential spouse to carry a briefcase to her White House office. Noting her singular tenacity and southern gentleness, the media dubbed her a “steel magnolia.”
Post–White House Years
After the Carters left the White House in 1981, they pursued careers as writers and professors and in 1982 founded the Carter Center in Atlanta. A not-for-profit, nongovernmental organization, the center works to advance peace and health worldwide and has helped to improve the quality of life for people in more than sixty-five countries. In 2003 the center had a staff of 150 fulfilling its mission to “wage peace, fight disease, and build hope” worldwide. In 1999 Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter, along with the Carter Center, received the inaugural Delta Prize for Global Understanding, an award administered by the University of Georgia.
As emissaries for the center, the Carters have traveled throughout the world, leading campaigns to eradicate Guinea worm disease and increase agricultural production in Africa, monitoring elections in new democracies, promoting human rights, and helping to resolve conflicts. Rosalynn Carter accompanied the former president and served as his advisor on high-profile peace negotiations in Bosnia, Sudan, Ethiopia, and North Korea.
She also oversees the center’s mental health program, which combats the stigma against mental illness and promotes improved mental health care, chairs the Carter Center Mental Health Task Force of eminent persons in the field, and each year brings together leaders of national mental health organizations to foster consensus on pivotal issues.
Lending her voice to many important causes, Rosalynn Carter also promotes early childhood immunization through the nationwide “Every Child by Two” campaign, assists family and professional caregivers through the Rosalynn Carter Institute at Georgia Southwestern State University, and advocates more compassionate care for those who are dying through the campaign “Last Acts: Care and Caring at the End of Life.” As a Distinguished Fellow of the Emory University Institute for Women’s Studies, she encourages young women to reach their full potential, and she helps build housing for the poor as a volunteer one week a year with Habitat for Humanity.
Since leaving the White House, Carter has published four books: her autobiography, First Lady from Plains (1984); with Jimmy Carter, Everything to Gain: Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life (1987); and with Susan K. Golant, Helping Yourself Help Others: A Book for Caregivers (1994) and Helping Someone with Mental Illness: A Compassionate Guide for Family, Friends, and Caregivers (1998). In 1989 she received a Governor’s Award in the Humanities.
In 2001, a year before her husband won the Nobel Peace Prize, Rosalynn Carter became only the third first lady named to the National Women’s Hall of Fame, joining the company of such women of achievement as Abigail Adams and Eleanor Roosevelt.