Rosalynn Carter, the deeply admired former first lady and wife of President Jimmy Carter, has died at the age of 96. Serving as the closest advisor and confidante to President Carter during his single term in the White House and throughout their decades of humanitarian work thereafter, Mrs. Carter passed away peacefully on November 19th, 2023 surrounded by loved ones at her home in Plains, Georgia.
As reported by the Associated Press and confirmed by the Carter Center, Mrs. Carter had been battling illness and dementia in her final months. But her nearly eight decades of marriage to President Carter exemplified a true partnership built on mutual trust, respect and shared purpose.
Remembering Rosalynn Carter’s Trailblazing Role as First Lady
While first ladies have long wielded quiet influence, Rosalynn Carter took on an unusually prominent advisory role. She sat in on Cabinet meetings, helped shape policy priorities, and undertook high-profile diplomatic trips where she forcefully advanced her husband’s human rights agenda.
Behind the scenes, President Carter relied heavily on Mrs. Carter’s shrewd political instincts, which some aides believed exceeded his own. Yet she remained devoted to empowering his success, once stating: “I’m his wife and his friend. I don’t need a title to make my opinions known.”
This blending of public leadership and wifely support broke new ground. The Carters’ time in Washington set a model for first ladies exercising substantive roles matched to their passions and talents.
Tireless Advocacy for Mental Health and Humanitarian Causes
While President Carter tackled the era’s economic and geopolitical crises, Rosalynn Carter championed the overlooked issues she cared deeply about. She was the driving force within the administration spearheading mental health policy reforms. And she drew attention to the struggles of caregivers, older Americans and vulnerable families.
After leaving the White House, the Carters embarked on a second act that, in many ways, eclipsed their political tenure. Their global activism through The Carter Center advanced disease prevention, monitored elections, mediated conflicts and built homes for the needy.
The couple’s shared sense of purpose, faith and heart for service continued enriching the world right up until Mrs. Carter’s passing.
A Partner and Soulmate for Over Three Quarters of a Century
Presidents tend to receive the lion’s share of historical attention, often overshadowing the indispensable first ladies at their side. But fellow leaders emphasize that Rosalynn Carter’s contributions stand as profound and enduring in their own right.
In his moving tribute, President Joe Biden praised the Carter family for “bringing so much grace to the office.” The lifelong bond between Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter spanned over 77 years of marriage, from their youth in Plains to the White House and well beyond.
As the former president poignantly summed up: “Rosalynn was my equal partner in everything I ever accomplished. The most influential person in my life.”
Their relationships exemplified that behind every great leader is often an equally great partner. And Rosalynn Carter’s legacy will continue inspiring future first ladies to meaningfully expand the power and possibilities of that role.
Early Life in Rural Georgia
Before ascending to the global stage, Eleanor Rosalynn Smith was born in the tiny Plains, Georgia in 1927. After losing her father at a young age, she helped care for her three siblings while her mother worked. Excelling in school, Rosalynn graduated as valedictorian and developed a strong independent streak.
A chance blind date with a young Naval Academy graduate named Jimmy Carter blossomed into love. They married in 1946, just after World War II as Jimmy was launching his military career.
The early postwar years found Rosalynn raising their three sons as Jimmy’s naval service took the family across the country. Their foundations as a couple were forged during this nomadic period before resettling back in Plains.
Partnership Forged in Running the Family Farm Business
When Jimmy Carter left the Navy in 1953 after his father’s death, the Carters took over the family’s struggling peanut farm. Rosalynn now applied her bookkeeping skills and business savvy to rescue the operation.
Working side by side in the fields and warehouses, the couple’s collaborative approach built the agribusiness into a prosperous venture.
More importantly, this baptism by fire nurtured a true professional and personal partnership between them. Rosalynn later considered these years vital preparation for the trials of the White House.
Rosalynn’s Political Instincts Prove Essential to Jimmy’s Rapid Rise
Inheriting his father’s passion for public service, Jimmy Carter jumped into Georgia politics in the 1960s. Rosalynn, initially reluctant, soon became an enthusiastic strategist and campaigner.
Her political instincts and warmth on the trail were credited with rounding out Jimmy’s cerebral, analytical bearing. As he rose from state senator to governor and eventually an improbable presidential nominee, Rosalynn provided the common touch able to connect with diverse voters.
Once in the Oval Office, Rosalynn maintained a demanding travel schedule highlighting Jimmy’s agenda throughout the U.S. and across 53 foreign nations. Her prominence was unprecedented for modern first ladies up to that time.
The Carter White House Years: A Lasting Legacy
The Carter presidency from 1977 to 1981 was defined by global economic malaise and the Iran hostage crisis. While Jimmy Carter struggled to effectively manage these compounding crises, Rosalynn worked diligently on the administration’s notable achievements.
She spearheaded the President’s Commission on Mental Health proposing far-reaching reforms. This built momentum for passing the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980 expanding community-based services, though unfortunately rolled back later by the Reagan administration.
Mrs. Carter was also an early champion addressing the burgeoning issue of caregiving, and advocating for older Americans and children’s welfare. She maintained a lifelong commitment to these causes thereafter.
Despite Jimmy Carter’s landslide defeat in 1980 at the hands of Ronald Reagan, Rosalynn Carter’s activist legacy as first lady pointed the way for those who followed. She proved being both a president’s wife and partner was not just possible, but profoundly impactful.
The Carter Center: Consolidating the Carters’ Global Humanitarian Legacy
Initially uncertain about returning to Plains after leaving Washington, the Carters soon embraced the opportunities ahead. In 1982 they established The Carter Center as a platform for their visionary humanitarian initiatives promoting health, democracy and human rights worldwide.
With boundless energy, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter embarked on frequent volunteer trips providing hands-on assistance to deprived communities. They mobilized resources to nearly eradicate diseases like Guinea worm disease across Africa and Asia.
The Carter Center monitored election integrity across emerging democracies and Rosalynn promoted greater roles for women in government. The couple mediated conflict resolutions in Haiti, Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda and North Korea.
This bold activism earned President Carter the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. But Rosalynn Carter was always there beside him every step of the way. Together they exemplified lifelong compassion and service.
Loss of a Partner, Soulmate and Activist Role Model
After overcoming cancer in 2015, President Carter was by Mrs. Carter’s side in her final days after entering hospice care this year. Rosalynn Carter’s passing at age 96 marks the loss of the longest-living first lady.
She now rejoins the former president in their final resting place back in their beloved Plains. The couple’s grave markers poignantly read “Mother and Daddy” underscoring the sweet devotion they shared.
President Joe Biden ordered flags lowered to half-staff in Mrs. Carter’s honor. And tributes to her remarkable life poured in from leaders worldwide. Former President Bill Clinton perhaps summed it up best calling her “a woman of strength, grit, compassion and dedication to service.”
That enduring spirit of service continues through the Carter Center’s vital work and the countless lives uplifted by Rosalynn Carter’s activism, wisdom and passion. Hers was a lifetime devoted to empowering the vulnerable and forging peace.
The former first lady often said, “We can’t really know what tomorrow will bring.” Her remarkable legacy ensures tomorrow will bring hope and light just as she did. And the cherished partnership Rosalynn Carter shared with her beloved husband will inspire others for generations to come.