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Eleanor Rosalynn Carter was born in Plains, Georgia, on August 18, 1927, the oldest of four children of Wilburn Edgar and Allethea “Allie” Murray Smith. Her father, a farmer and a mechanic, died of leukemia when she was thirteen, and her mother worked as a dressmaker—and later in the local post office—to support the family, although she always struggled just to make ends meet. Rosalynn helped her with sewing, housework, and taking care of the other Smith children while she worked in the local beauty parlor and maintained an enviable record in school. What little spare time she had was spent with her best friend, Ruth Carter, Jimmy Carter’s younger sister. Rosalynn was a good student and graduated as salutatorian of Plains High School.
Rosalynn was three years younger than Jimmy Carter and they did not socialize during their high school years. They began to date after her freshman year at Georgia Southwestern College, while he was a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy. After a six-month courtship, carried on mostly through letter-writing, Jimmy proposed marriage, however she turned him down because she wanted to finish college. When he asked her a second time during a visit with her and her family to Annapolis, she accepted, and they were married a month after he graduated from Annapolis Naval Academy in 1946. The marriage ended her plans to attend Georgia State College for Women, where she had planned to study interior design.
You must accept that you might fail; then, if you do your best and still don't win, at least you can be satisfied that you've tried. If you don't accept failure as a possibility, you don't set high goals, you don't branch out, you don't try - you don't take the risk.
— Rosalynn Carter
Marriage to Jimmy Carter
Having spent her entire life in Georgia—nearly all of it in Plains—Rosalynn welcomed the opportunity to be a navy wife and to see a bit more of the world. Her three sons were each born in different states: John William in Virginia, James Earl III in Hawaii, and Donnel Jeffrey in Connecticut. The Carters also lived at times in California and New York. Rosalynn enjoyed the independence she had found living away from Plains, Georgia.
Rosalynn was stunned when Jimmy told her that he wanted to move back to Plains and run his late father’s business. In her autobiography, First Lady from Plains, she recalled, “I argued. I cried. I even screamed at him.” She didn’t want to go back there because the town was filled with memories of tough times. She finally agreed to her husband’s plan, and after they went back home, Rosalynn took over the accounting work for the Carter family’s peanut warehouse while she supervised other family interests. Their fourth child, Amy Lynn, was born in 1967 in Plains.
She supported her husband completely when he became involved in state politics, and she spent many long hours campaigning for him as he ran for state senator. After helping her husband win the governorship of Georgia, she focused her attention on the needs of the mentally ill.
After Jimmy’s term as governor had ended in 1975, Rosalynn, Jimmy, and Amy Carter returned to Plains, Georgia. By this time, Jimmy had already announced his plans to run for the office of the President of the United States. During his presidential campaign, Rosalynn traveled by herself to forty-one states to give speeches on his behalf, and her enthusiasm greatly contributed to his election with a narrow defeat of the incumbent President Gerald R. Ford in 1976.
First Lady of the United States
Rosalynn declared that she had no intention of being a traditional First Lady. Once she became established as First Lady, she worked even harder to back her husband’s policies while at the same time emerging as a woman with missions of her own. Along with Lady Bird Johnson and Betty Ford, she was a tireless supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), a proposed Constitutional amendment to recognize the rights of women. Though it was not ratified, it was not because the First Lady didn’t provide her wholehearted support.
She was also a proponent of patients’ rights for the mentally ill and a supporter of the performing arts. Through her work as honorary chairman of the President’s Commission on Mental Health, she helped raise national consciousness about the treatment and rights of mental health patients. She represented her husband on formal occasions and traveled to Latin America as his personal representative. She handled all of these things while she was also raising her daughter Amy, who was only nine years old when they moved into the White House.
Rosalynn Carter was a serious contributor to her husband’s political campaigns and an extremely busy and highly respected First Lady. She had no reservations about traveling alone as a representative of the Carter administration; she attended cabinet meetings and kept a full schedule of her own activities. Also, as she had been for almost all of her adult life, Mrs. Carter was a strong partner for her husband and a significant spokesperson for the causes she felt strongly about.
Rosalynn Carter was bitter when her husband wasn’t reelected in 1980. She felt betrayed by the press, which had attacked President Carter for the hostage situation in Iran, the continuing energy crisis, and runaway inflation. She felt strongly that her husband would have had a more successful second term, and she also admitted that she expected to have trouble readjusting to a quiet life in Plains after having been so busy in the public eye for four years. Her bitterness faded quickly, though, when she realized that the American people still valued her opinions and were still watching her with admiration.
Life After the White House
After leaving the spotlight of Washington, D.C., Rosalynn Carter worked with her husband to promote international human rights through the Carter Center, which they established in Atlanta, Georgia. She worked side-by-side with him to increase public awareness of Habitat for Humanity, a private program that builds homes for needy Americans.
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In March 1984, President and Mrs. Carter worked with Habitat for Humanity in Americus, Georgia. In September of that same year, the Carters led a Habitat for Humanity work group to New York, which provided 19 families with safe and affordable housing. She also continued her work on behalf of the mentally ill, and in 1991, she cofounded a program called Every Child by Two, with the goal of early childhood immunization against diseases. Her humanitarian work has earned her numerous honors, awards, and citations, including several honorary degrees.
In her autobiography, Mrs. Carter wrote, “I would be out there campaigning right now if Jimmy would run again. I miss the world of politics.” It reflected how she felt after she left the White House, before she discovered that she and her husband could continue to make a serious impact on international affairs. Although Rosalynn Carter stayed out of the limelight, she didn’t slow down in her effort to improve the quality of life around the world, nor did she lose the independent spirit that had endeared her to so many during her years as First Lady.
Both Carters have remained active with the Habit for Humanity organization. In October 2014, it was announced that the next Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter Habitat Work Project will be building homes in Nepal. The Carters' goal, along with thousands of volunteers, is to help build shelters for 100,000 Nepali families.
Video Biography of Rosalynn Carter
- Boller, Paul F. Jr. Presidential Wives: An Anecdotal History. Second Edition. New York: Oxford University Press. 1998.
- Carter Work Project. http://www.habitat.org/volunteer/build-events/carter-work-project. Accessed December 29, 2016.
- CNN Library. Rosalynn Carter Fast Facts. http://www.cnn.com/2013/01/07/us/rosalynn-carter---fast-facts. Accessed December 29, 2016.
- Matuz, Roger. The Presidents Fact Book. Revised and Updated. Black Dog & Leventhal Publications, Inc. 2009.
© 2016 Doug West
Doug West (author) from Missouri on April 11, 2018:
Her and Jimmy are still going strong. Good for them. I hope I have half the drive they have when I am their age.
Sharon Stajda on April 11, 2018:
One of the greats. She was a compassionate hard working strong woman... And she did not have to shout or bring attention to herself to be heard. One of a kind.
Doug West (author) from Missouri on December 30, 2016:
Thanks. I didn't realize until I started researching and writing this piece just how involved she has been in politics and helping people.
Readmikenow on December 30, 2016:
This was a lot of good information. Very good job! Enjoyed reading it.
Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on December 30, 2016: