Rosalynn Carter

First Lady Whose Focus Was Mental Health Reform

Rosalynn Carter 2004
Rosalynn Carter 2004: at the Death Penalty Focus Awards. Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Dates: August 18, 1927 - , First Lady 1977-1981

Husband: James Earl Carter (Jimmy Carter), US President. Married July 7, 1946

Children: John William (Jack) Carter (1947 - ), James Earl III (Chip) (1950 - ), Donnel Jeffrey (Jeff) (1952 - ), Amy Lynn (1967 - )

Also known as: Eleanor Rosalynn Smith Carter

Known for: Active role as First Lady, with focus on mental health reform

About Rosalynn Carter:

Born in Plains, Georgia, Rosalynn Carter was one of four children of Frances Allethea (Allie) Murray and Edgar Smith.

Her father died in 1940, and Rosalynn, the eldest, helped in her mother's dressmaking business and helped care for her siblings. While helping her family, she graduated from Plains High School as valedictorian and then attended Georgia Southwestern College while living at home.

Rosalynn had known the Carters of Plains, later saying that she had had a crush for years on Jimmy Carter. They began dating in 1945 while he was visiting Plains during his time at the US Naval Academy at Annapolis. They married in 1946, and until 1953, traveled as part of his Naval career.

It was during these years of Jimmy's military service that their first three children were born. Rosalynn continued her education in those years, primarily through home study courses. In 1953, when his father died, Jimmy Carter left the Navy to run his family's peanut and warehouse business. Rosalynn Carter handled the financial records of the business.

Jimmy Carter successfully ran for the Georgia Senate in 1962, lost his first bid to be elected governor in 1966, and won the gubernatorial election in 1970.

When Jimmy Carter launched his political career, Rosalynn Carter took over managing the business during his absences for campaigning or at the state capital, and she also assisted in his legislative office.

While her husband was a state senator, Rosalynn Carter developed her interest in mental health reform.

In the long campaign before the 1976 Presidential election, Rosalynn Carter actively campaigned separately for her husband, traveling by car and, later, by plane. She campaigned in 42 states.

As US First Lady, Rosalynn Carter eschewed traditional First Lady activities. She did not redecorate the White House or order a new china pattern. She served economical meals when acting as White House hostess, and during her tenure the White House did not serve hard liquor. She did not buy a new gown for her husband's 1977 inauguration, using the same dress she'd worn for his gubernatorial inauguration.

Rosalynn Carter broke new ground in her active role as her husband's advisor and partner. Her chief of staff was paid the same salary as her husband's chief of staff. She sometimes attended cabinet meetings, taking whatever official's chair was vacant during that meeting.

In 1977, Rosalynn Carter traveled to seven Latin American countries, not on the tradictional First Lady fact-finding tour, but actually talking with leaders about policy on trade and defense. She was criticized heavily for taking such a role, and never did so again.

Rosalynn Carter did, however, serve as her husband's representative on ceremonial occasions abroad, and undertook humanitarian and fact-finding missions. She accompanied her husband on his trips, often with her own itinerary focusing on women's issues or health issues.

Rosalynn Carter lobbied for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), both for passage of the ERA and for an extension of time to pass the amendment.

Rosalynn Carter's major focus as First Lady was with mental health and senior issues. She took an active though honorary role with the President's Commission on Mental Health, and she testified before Congress on the commission's Mental Health Systems bill which passed in 1980.

Rosalynn Carter joined actively in working on her husband's re-election campaign. Because of the situation in Iran, Rosalynn took to the campaign trail while Jimmy Carter remained at work in the White House.

By most accounts she was angry at her husband's election defeat.

After Jimmy Carter left the White House, Rosalynn Carter returned with him to Plains, and worked with him in humanitarian projects. She continued to work on mental health reform, and has been an active supporter with her husband of Habitat for Humanity.

In 1984, Rosalynn Carter published her story of the Carter White House years in First Lady from Plains, recognized as an important analysis providing insight into Jimmy Carter's presidency.