Rosalynn Carter, Influential First Lady and Tireless Mental Health Advocate, Dead at 96

Rosalynn Carter, former first lady and wife of Jimmy Carter, as well as a devoted housing and mental health advocate, died on Sunday, Nov. 19, at her home in Plains, Georgia while surrounded by family, the Carter Center announced. She was 96.

“Rosalynn was my equal partner in everything I ever accomplished,” former President Carter said in a statement. “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.”

“Besides being a loving mother and extraordinary First Lady, my mother was a great humanitarian in her own right,” their son, Chip Carter, said in a statement. “Her life of service and compassion was an example for all Americans. She will be sorely missed not only by our family but by the many people who have better mental health care and access to resources for caregiving today.”

In May, it was announced that Rosalynn had been diagnosed with dementia, about three months after Jimmy, then 98, decided to forgo “additional medical intervention” and enter hospice care at the Carters’ home in Plains, Georgia.

At the time of her dementia diagnosis, the Carter Center issued a statement that alluded to Rosalynn’s  extensive work as a mental health advocate: “We recognize, as she did more than half a century ago, that stigma is often a barrier that keeps individuals and their families from seeking and getting much-needed support. We hope sharing our family’s news will increase important conversations at kitchen tables and in doctors’ offices around the country.”

Eleanor Rosalynn Smith was born Aug. 18, 1927, in Plains, Georgia, a small town in the southwest part of the state near the border with Alabama. Rosalynn grew up in poverty, and her father died of leukemia when she was 13. Rosalynn not only helped care for her younger siblings, but chipped in with the dressmaking her mother took up to provide for the family. On top of all that, she finished high school and enrolled in Georgia Southwestern College, graduating in 1946.

Rosalynn and Jimmy — who also grew up in Plains — started dating in 1945 and married the following year. After Jimmy’s graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and subsequent enlistment, the couple moved around a lot, with stays in Virginia, Hawaii, and Connecticut. They had three sons — Jack, James III, and Donnel — each born in a different state; years later, in 1967, the Carters welcomed a daughter, Amy.

Jimmy left the Navy in 1953 and brought the family back to Plains following the death of his father. Together, he and Rosalynn took over and ran the family businesses, which famously included a peanut farm. As Rosalynn recalled in her 1984 memoir, First Lady From Plains, the couple gained prominence and notoriety in their small community as they fought in favor of school desegregation. This fight partly propelled Jimmy into politics, and Rosalynn was not only supportive but played a key role in his successful 1962 campaign for Georgia state Senate.

Rosalynn remained equally involved when Jimmy embarked on his first failed gubernatorial bid, in 1966, then again when he won in 1970. On the campaign trail, Rosalynn met numerous people and families grappling with mental health issues and learning disabilities; as the first lady of Georgia, she made this her primary focus. Rosalynn admitted in her memoir that she “had a lot to learn” about the issue, but committed herself thoroughly, attending every meeting of the special commission established to improve services, volunteering one day a week at a regional hospital, and touring other facilities around the state.

The commission helped totally overhaul Georgia’s mental health system, and as Rosalynn wrote: “When people ask, ‘What was the most rewarding thing you did as first lady of Georgia?’ I always answer, ‘My work with the mentally ill.’”

In 1974, near the end of his first and only term as Georgia’s governor, Jimmy announced he would run for president. Rosalynn once again played a major role, campaigning in more than 40 states on behalf of her husband as he successfully secured the Democratic nomination and then the presidency.

And once again, now as first lady of the United States, she took an active role. She sat in on cabinet meetings and briefings, and even served as a presidential emissary on official visits to Latin America and Southeast Asia. She tried to lobby support for the ultimately unsuccessful Equal Rights Amendment, and continued to work on mental health issues, serving as the honorary chairperson of the President’s Commission on Mental Health.

“I like to know what’s going on,” Rosalynn told People in a 1979 interview. “I have to meet with people and have press conferences. They ask me questions about what’s going on. It’s not just that I want to be informed, though I do. I’ve just always worked with Jimmy this way, ever since he ran for governor in 1966. I needed to know how he stood on issues. We used to study together, we made up issue papers together. Now that he is the president, am I supposed not to be interested?”

After Jimmy lost the 1980 election to Ronald Reagan, the Carters returned to Georgia and, in 1982, launched the Carter Center. The nonpartisan nonprofit anchored the couple’s extensive humanitarian and diplomatic efforts around the world, advocating for peace in conflict zones from the Korean Peninsula to the Middle East; observing elections in 39 countries; advancing human rights and helping to establish and strengthen health care systems in Africa and Latin America; and working to eradicate Guinea worm disease. Rosalyn and Jimmy also famously became involved in Habitat for Humanity, with Rosalynn later serving on the organization’s board of advisors.

Mental health advocacy remained a major part of Rosalynn’s work as well. She wrote several books on the subject with co-author Susan K. Golant, and through the Carter Center launched the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism. In 2007, she successfully lobbied for, and testified in Congress on behalf of, a law ensuring that health insurance covers mental illness equally with other illnesses.

On Sunday, First Lady Jill Biden paid tribute to Carter during a “Friendsgiving” gathering with service members and their families in Norfolk, Virginia. “Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter has just passed. And she was well known for her efforts in mental health and caregiving and women’s rights. So I hope that during the holidays, you’ll include the Carter family in your prayers.”

Former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — whose friendship with the former first lady extended more than 40 years — acknowledged Carter as an advocate for the overlooked and underrepresented, noting her work as a mental health advocate, leadership in childhood immunization, and dedication at Habitat for Humanity. “Rosalynn Carter was a compassionate and committed champion of human dignity everywhere,” they wrote in their statement, adding, “Rosalynn will be forever remembered as the embodiment of a life lived with purpose.”

In many ways, Rosalynn reshaped the role of first lady, notably being the first to establish an official office in the East Wing of the White House. But when asked about her legacy in an interview with C-SPAN, Rosalynn was quick to say she hoped it “continues to be more than just first lady.” She went on to mention the work of the Carter Center, saying, “I hope that I have contributed something to mental health issues, and helped improve, a little bit, the lives of people living with mental illnesses.”

From there, though, she spoke about the small, but monumentally gratifying moments of her humanitarian work, zeroing in on the Carters’ efforts to eradicate Guinea worm disease. Recalling visits to villages where the disease had finally been snuffed out, Rosalyn suddenly got emotional as she said, “It’s just so wonderful — just to see the hope on their faces. Something good is happening.”

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