Rosalynn Carter, 96, Expanded Role of First Lady

Wife of former President Jimmy Carter advocated for mental health issues, attended Cabinet meetings
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 19, 2023 3:09 PM CST
Rosalynn Carter, 96, Broadened Role of First Lady
Georgia Gov.-elect Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn Carter, celebrate his election win, Nov. 3, 1970, in Atlanta.   (Billy Downs/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, File)

Rosalynn Carter, the former first lady who was a full partner to her husband in life and politics—sitting in on his Cabinet meetings—died Sunday. She died peacefully at home in Plains, Georgia, where she had entered hospice care with former President Jimmy Carter, the Carter Center announced. She was 96. "Rosalynn is my best friend … the perfect extension of me, probably the most influential person in my life," the president told aides during his 1977-81 term in office, per NPR. The Carters were married for more than 77 years, per the Washington Post, making theirs the longest presidential marriage in US history.

Rosalynn Carter created the Office of the First Lady, setting it up in the East Wing of the White House with its own chief of staff, and otherwise broadened the role of presidential spouse. She was a forceful advocate on issues including mental health, elder care, and the Equal Rights Amendment. "I wanted to take mental illnesses and emotional disorders out of the closet, to let people know it is all right to admit having a problem without the fear of being called crazy," she wrote in her autobiography. "If only we could consider mental illnesses as straightforwardly as we do physical illnesses, those affected could seek help and be treated in an open and effective way."

When preparing to move into the White House, Carter told an interviewer she embraced the possibilities, per NBC News. "There's so much you can do," she said, adding that she wanted to work on causes "independently, on my own." Her attendance at Cabinet meetings caused a stir. "Jimmy's always talked things over with me, like when he was choosing the vice president or the Cabinet," she said. "I've always been involved in the meetings." The incoming first lady said that she told her husband what she thought even when they disagreed and would continue to do that. Both of them called their relationship a full partnership. That was the case from the beginning, when they took over his family's peanut warehouse in Plains.

story continues below

In the four decades after Jimmy Carter left office, the couple founded the Carter Center in Atlanta, traveling the world to monitor elections and promote human rights and peace initiatives. One week per year, they did construction work with Habitat for Humanity—building or remodeling more than 4,300 homes in 14 countries for low-income people, per the Post. Rosalynn Carter, who wrote or co-wrote five books, continued her work on mental health, inspired partly by a relative's experience in mental institutions. "Twenty-five years ago, we did not dream that people might someday be able actually to recover from mental illnesses," Carter said in 2003. "Today it is a very real possibility." That, she added, "is a miraculous development." (More obituary stories.)

Get breaking news in your inbox.
What you need to know, as soon as we know it.
Sign up
Get the news faster.
Tap to install our app.
Install the Newser News app
in two easy steps:
1. Tap in your navigation bar.
2. Tap to Add to Home Screen.