Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, the beloved wife of the 39th President, Jimmy Carter, passed away on November 19th, 2023, at the age of 96. Her family had disclosed in May 2023 that she had been battling dementia, and she subsequently received hospice care alongside her husband at their cherished Plains residence in November.
Eleanor Rosalynn Smith, born on August 18, 1927, in the quaint town of Plains, Georgia, shared her hometown with her future spouse, Jimmy Carter, and held the distinction of being the eldest of four siblings. Tragically, at the tender age of 13, her father succumbed to leukemia, necessitating her mother to become a dressmaker to support the family, as recounted in her official White House biography.
Despite her responsibilities as the eldest daughter, Carter persevered in her education, successfully completing high school and later graduating from Georgia Southwestern College. In 1945, she embarked on her first date with Jimmy Carter, a close family friend, while he was on leave from the Naval Academy in Annapolis.
Following that initial encounter, a 17-year-old Rosalynn left a lasting impression on Jimmy, who candidly told his mother, “She’s the girl I want to marry.” The union was solemnized in 1946, and after relocating to various cities to support Jimmy’s naval career, they eventually settled in Plains after the passing of his father in 1953. Here, they assumed responsibility for the family peanut farm, with Rosalynn managing the financial affairs.
Rosalynn’s unwavering support extended to Jimmy’s political pursuits, from his 1962 campaign for the Georgia State Senate to his gubernatorial bid in 1970 and his historic run for the White House in 1977.
As First Lady, Rosalynn Carter left an indelible mark on the White House, earning the moniker “the Steel Magnolia” from the DC Press for her unique blend of strength and the grace associated with a Southern political spouse. She redefined the role of the First Lady, maintaining her own office in the East Wing, employing her own staff, and championing her own initiatives. Her participation in high-level meetings with the President’s advisers raised eyebrows among Washington’s elite.
Notably, she actively contributed to her husband’s decision-making process by providing astute counsel during cabinet meetings, often a silent but influential presence. She initiated her own agenda, complementing her husband’s commitment to the less fortunate, advocating for individuals with disabilities, women’s rights, and most notably, challenging societal stigmas surrounding mental health issues.
Rosalynn served as the honorary chair of the President’s Commission on Mental Health, instrumental in the passage of the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980. Some have drawn comparisons between her active role as First Lady and the legacies of Eleanor Roosevelt and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, while observing that her relationship with her husband appeared to be less strained than those of her predecessors.
Rosalynn Carter’s advocacy did not wane after departing the White House in 1981. In 1987, she founded the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers, an organization dedicated to promoting the mental health and well-being of family caregivers.
Throughout her life, Rosalynn authored five books, including her 1984 autobiography, co-written with her husband, chronicling their post-political life journey in “First Lady from Plains” and “Everything To Gain: Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life.”
On November 17, 2023, Rosalynn entered in-home hospice care at her and Jimmy’s cherished Plains residence, almost nine months following her husband’s series of hospital stays. Their grandson, Jason Carter, conveyed that the couple spent quality time with each other and their family during this period.
The Carters made a rare public appearance at the Plains Peanut Festival on September 23, 2023, shortly before the former Commander-in-Chief marked his 99th birthday, captured on video as they strolled through town in a black SUV.