Rosalynn Carter Juvenile/Educational Biography
Rosalynn Smith Carter
August 18, 1927 –
Eleanor Rosalynn Smith was born on August 18, 1927, the oldest of four children born to Frances Allethea Murray Smith and Wilburn Edgar Smith. Her father was a town councilman in their hometown of Plains, Georgia, and he also worked as an auto mechanic, school bus driver, and store clerk. His death, when Rosalynn was thirteen, had an immediate impact on the family. Her mother took on numerous jobs to support the family—sewing, dairy farming, and working in a grocery store, school cafeteria, and United States Post Office. Rosalynn had a similar work ethic as her mother and secured employment in a local beauty shop as the shampoo girl to bring in extra money.
Rosalynn graduated from Plains High School as valedictorian and her mother found the money to send her to Georgia Southwestern College, a junior college located in nearby Americus, Georgia. She had begun to date young James Earl “Jimmy” Carter who was the brother of her good friend, Ruth Carter. Rosalynn was in awe of the young midshipman at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, who was three years older; Jimmy was smitten. They began to write daily when he returned to school and Jimmy proposed in December 1945. Rosalynn thought they had not been dating long enough and refused. He proposed again in February 1946, and on July 7, 1946, after his graduation and commissioning as a naval officer, they were married in the Plains Methodist Church. Rosalynn was eighteen years old.
During the seven years of Jimmy’s naval career as a submariner, the couple was posted to Norfolk, Virginia; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; New London, Connecticut; Pearl Harbor, Hawaii; San Diego, California; and Provincetown, Massachusetts. Each of their three sons was born in different locations because of Jimmy’s military duties. Their daughter Amy was born after their return to Plains. Jimmy’s father died in 1953 and Jimmy resigned his naval commission to come home to Plains to see to the Carter family’s failing peanut warehouse. Without hired assistance, Rosalynn not only cared for her family, she also successfully assumed the financial management of the agribusiness as her contribution to the family. As business improved, Jimmy became interested in politics and Rosalynn helped in his successful campaign for state senator in 1962 and an unsuccessful run for governor in 1966. Finally, Jimmy was successful in his campaign for governor in 1970 and Rosalynn became the First Lady of Georgia.
Rosalynn was not a traditional first lady! Not only did she assume the duties of hostess, she also oversaw the landscaping of the grounds of the Governor’s Mansion, authored a book about the house, and took responsibility for the financial accounting of the operations of the Mansion, much as she had done with the family business. She was especially interested in overhauling the state’s mental health system and had committed herself to the issue while campaigning for Jimmy. She kept the issue in front of the state government and finally was able to oversee the initial reforms that provided direct services to citizens who were mentally or emotionally handicapped. She served as Honorary Chairperson of the Georgia Special Olympics from 1971 to 1975 and volunteered at the Georgia Regional Hospital in Atlanta.
Jimmy announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for the Presidency in 1974 and while still Georgia’s first lady, Rosalynn began to travel throughout the United States to help raise awareness of the work Jimmy was doing in Georgia and to make his name recognizable to the American public. She often traveled alone or with one friend, stopping at local radio or television stations to speak unannounced about her husband and his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for the presidency. She became the first candidate’s wife to make a campaign promise of her own: if she became First Lady she would work for legislative reform on behalf of the nation’s mentally ill, a cause dear to her heart. In addition, because she had represented Jimmy for so long and had detailed his intended programs so frequently, she perhaps knew more about his platform than any modern candidate’s wife. She slowly developed skill in speaking to large groups and handling difficult questions. The press corps described her as a “steel magnolia,” a term denoting quiet sweetness, political acumen, ambition, and strength. Jimmy won the Democratic Party’s nomination during the summer of 1976 and the fall election as well.
Just as the two of them had been partners during his naval career and the rebuilding of their peanut warehouse business, Rosalynn and Jimmy walked, hand in hand, down Pennsylvania Avenue after his inauguration in January 1977, an indication of their partnership for his administration. Her involvement in her husband’s work has been likened to that of Eleanor Roosevelt. Rosalynn sat in on cabinet meetings and frequently traveled abroad as the President’s official representative. Among such trips were those to Jamaica, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela where she held substantive meetings on major international issues, often speaking with the leaders in fluent Spanish. She was the first First Lady to maintain her office in the East Wing and it was during her years in the White House that Congress more formally recognized the invaluable contributions of the First Lady although she served in a role that was not addressed by the Constitution. This formal recognition was in the form of an automatic appropriation for a staff for the First Lady. Previously, the First Lady’s staff had been paid out of the First Family’s private funds. In addition, she worked for improved treatment of senior citizens in need through federal programs, especially Social Security and those initiatives that provided more services to the elderly in rural areas. She worked to promote community volunteerism, treating Washington, D.C. as she would Plains, Georgia, seeking ways to contribute to her new hometown. During the lengthy and sensitive negotiations that resulted in the Camp David Accords, Rosalynn worked beside Jimmy to bring Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat together for the monumental first peace treaty between an Arab nation and the State of Israel.
But Rosalyn did not forget her campaign promise. She assumed an active role in the administration’s newly created President’s Commission on Mental Health, a group that began meeting only a month after Jimmy’s inauguration! Rosalynn served as Honorary Chair of the group and actively oversaw an advisory board of twenty commissioners composed of social workers, medical experts, lobbyists and psychiatrists who toured the nation, holding public hearings, consulting hundreds of community activists, doctors, legislators, and former mental health patients themselves, while also developing thirty separate task forces staffed by over 450 volunteers that concentrated on specialized issues. The conference gathering that brought all the information together was held in the White House State Dining Room. The Commission prepared recommendations that urged a rewriting of earlier federal legislation in order to strengthen community center services, erase duplication of services between state and federal groups, and create changes to health insurance coverage, public housing, Medicaid and Medicare and state support for the most chronically mentally ill. The group also urged the creation of a “bill of rights” to protect the mentally ill from discrimination. These clauses were enacted immediately by presidential proclamation. The Commission drew up a formal document with numerous recommendations for federal implementation of the most sweeping reform of mental health legislation in nearly thirty years. The administration submitted the Mental Health Systems Act to Congress in early 1979 and Rosalynn testified on its behalf before the Senate Subcommittee on Health on May 15, 1979, the first First Lady to do so since Eleanor Roosevelt. The Act was passed and funded in September 1980.
Jimmy’s re-election campaign in 1980 against the Republican challenger, Ronald Reagan, was a hard-fought one. It was only in the last week that it tipped toward the Republican, and the couple knew that Jimmy would serve only one term as President of the United States. They retired to Plains but they did not retire. Rosalynn wrote her autobiography, First Lady from Plains, published in 1984. As a partner with Jimmy, she helped to create The Carter Center in Atlanta to promote peace and human rights worldwide. She continues to lead the Center’s program to diminish the stigma against mental illness and to promote greater access to mental health care worldwide. The Center also frequently serves as the impartial international observer for elections in the world’s “hot spots” where democracy is new or under attack. She and Jimmy also continue to find ways to help create caring communities across America through their work with Habitat for Humanity, a network of volunteers who build low-cost homes for the needy. She continues to speak and travel, serving as Distinguished Centennial Lecturer at Agnes Scott College from 1988-1992 and currently as a distinguished fellow at the Emory University Institute for Women’s Studies in Atlanta, Georgia. In addition to her autobiography, she has written or co-authored three other books.
History will remember Rosalynn Carter not only as a partner in her husband’s administration; it will also view her as an activist First Lady whose ideals and commitment to caring for others found multiple expressions through all phases of her life.