Rosalynn Carter, Former First Lady, Dies at 96


Courtesy of The Washington Post

By Liesl Ament

Rosalynn Carter, former first lady and humanitarian, died at her home in Plains, Georgia, on November 19. She was 96.

Mrs. Carter had been diagnosed with dementia in May 2023. On Friday, November 17, she entered hospice care due to an infection that was not responding to treatment. Mrs. Carter died peacefully on Sunday at 2:10 p.m. The Carter Center reported that she was surrounded by family, including her husband, former President Jimmy Carter.

The Carter Center’s press release included a prepared statement from President Carter: “Rosalynn was my equal partner in everything I ever accomplished. She gave me wise guidance and encouragement when I needed it. As long as Rosalynn was in the world, I always knew somebody loved and supported me.”

Mrs. Carter was born Eleanor Rosalynn Smith on August 18, 1927, in Plains, Georgia. She was the oldest of four siblings. Rosalynn’s parents taught her the importance of discipline and hard work. Rosalynn’s father died when she was thirteen. On his deathbed, he asked his children to continue pursuing their education. Rosalynn took his words to heart, graduating from Plains High School as valedictorian and later enrolling in Georgia Southwestern College.

During high school and college, Rosalynn developed a good friendship with Ruth Carter. It was through this friendship that Rosalynn fell in love with Ruth’s older brother Jimmy, whose photo was pinned on Ruth’s wall. He was away at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Every time Jimmy returned for a holiday break, Ruth invited Rosalynn to come visit, but she refused.

Finally, in the summer of 1945, Rosalynn went on her first date with Jimmy. On the ride home, he kissed her. They continued writing letters during the school year. Rosalynn accepted Jimmy’s marriage proposal in February 1946, and they married in July 1946, shortly after their graduations from their respective institutions.

Mrs. Carter had planned to pursue further education at Georgia State College for Women and pursue further education, but her marriage to Jimmy canceled those plans. Instead, the newlyweds moved to Virginia so that Jimmy could begin his Naval career. It was not easy being away from home for the first time, but Mrs. Carter adjusted. The Carters welcomed three sons—Jack, Chip, and Jeff—between 1947 and 1952. They moved often, according to Carter’s Navy orders. Mrs. Carter appreciated the independence that Navy life afforded her.

In 1953, following his father’s death, Carter retired from the Navy to run the family peanut business in Plains. Rosalynn fought bitterly against the decision, but there was no deterring Jimmy. After an adjustment period, Mrs. Carter began managing the business’s finances. The work felt important to her, and she was glad to do it. 

In 1967, the Carters had their fourth child, Amy Lynn. In 1970, Jimmy was elected Governor of Georgia. During the campaign, Rosalynn learned from citizens the importance of mental health. She made that issue her priority as First Lady of Georgia. According to Rosalynn, during Carter’s term, Georgia’s total number of mental health centers expanded from 23 to 134, and the state treated 56% more mental patients.

In 1976, Jimmy Carter was elected as President of the United States. As First Lady, Rosalynn served as the honorary chair of the President’s Commission on Mental Health. She also advocated for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, created programs to increase childhood immunization, and served as a political envoy on a tour of Latin America.

First Lady Carter’s Latin America trip received backlash, as did her unprecedented decision to attend cabinet meetings. Critics argued that she was overstepping her role. First Lady Carter ignored the criticism and did what she thought was right. President Carter agreed with her; he saw his wife as his full political partner.

In 1980, Carter lost the re-election to Ronald Reagan. Once out of office, the Carters continued their humanitarian efforts. In 1982, they founded the Carter Center to advance human rights worldwide. One of their most notable achievements is the near-total eradication of Guinea worm disease.

In 1984, Rosalynn released her memoir First Lady from Plains. Later that year, President and Mrs. Carter volunteered at Habitat for Humanity for the first time. They enjoyed the experience so much that they made it an annual tradition. From 1984 until 2019, every year the Carters spent one week volunteering with Habitat.

In July 2023, the Carters celebrated their 77th wedding anniversary. They were the longest-married Presidential couple in U.S. history. In October 2023, President Carter turned 99; in celebration, the couple made their last public appearance at the Plains Peanut Festival.

Mrs. Carter is survived by her four children, eleven grandchildren, and fifteen great-grandchildren. Her funeral was held on Wednesday, November 29, at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains. All former First Ladies were invited to attend.

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