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Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter Dies at 96

A dedicated humanitarian, she was the first first lady to have an office and staff in the White House

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Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post via Getty Images

They were a team and always had been. In marriage, in politics, in humanitarianism, Rosalynn Carter was an equal partner to her husband, Jimmy, the peanut farmer who rose to the White House in the late ‘70s and then went home to Georgia to do good works. 

“The best thing I ever did was marrying Rosa,” the 39th president once said. “That’s the pinnacle of my life.” He called her his closest adviser. 

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The former first lady (1977-1981) died Sunday, Nov. 19 at age 96; her dementia diagnosis was first shared by the Carter family in May 2023. On November 17, the family announced that she was entering hospice care at home.

She will be buried in front of her home in Plains, Georgia, a flyspeck of a town 140 miles south of Atlanta, where she was born and spent almost all of her life.

Mrs. Carter was exceptionally involved in her husband’s policies. The first presidential spouse to have her own office and staff in the East Wing of the White House, she sat in on cabinet meetings and took notes at his invitation “so that when I traveled across the country ... and was questioned by the press and other individuals about all areas of government, I’d know what was going on.” 

She also expanded the role of the president’s wife at a time when the country was wrestling with the expectations of women at home and in the workplace. Not everyone was pleased. 

Mrs. Carter “was controversial for those who wanted a traditional personification of women as helpmates,” wrote Jeannette Cockroft, associate professor of history and political science at Schreiner University, “and she was also controversial for feminists who thought her redefinition of the role of first lady did not go far enough.”   

During her four years in Washington, she worked to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, raise awareness of the need for childhood immunizations, and, above all, aid the mentally ill. She served as the honorary chair of the President’s Commission on Mental Health and fought for the passage of the 1980 Mental Health Systems Act, to give grants to community centers. When President Ronald Reagan, a Republican, defeated Carter, a Democrat, for a second term, she made no secret of her disappointment, especially as “funding of our legislation was killed by the philosophy of a new president. It was a bitter loss.”

Mrs. Carter said in an Op-Ed for in 2019 that she first became an advocate for the mentally ill in 1966 when she was helping her husband campaign for governor of Georgia. 

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“I stood outside the entrance of the factory early in the morning, waiting to give people brochures as they left the night shift. An older woman came out, looking weary from work. When I asked if she would be able to get some sleep, she told me she hoped so, but that she had a daughter who had a mental illness and needed care while the woman’s husband was at his job. That conversation would start me on a lifelong crusade for better treatment and policies for people living with mental illnesses.” 

When Mrs. Carter and her husband opened the Carter Center in Atlanta in 1982, she established a mental health program to end the stigma of psychiatric disorders since, “It still keeps so many people from getting help.” In 1999, they were awarded Presidential Medals of Freedom for their work.

Born Eleanor Rosalynn Smith on Aug. 18, 1927, the daughter of an auto mechanic and a dressmaker, she experienced what she called the end of her childhood when her father died of leukemia when she was 13. Though she was salutatorian of Plains High School and went on to Georgia Southwestern College, she was forced to drop out to assist her mother in her business and in raising the younger siblings. 

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Jimmy Carter with his wife Rosalynn and their family at the Democratic Convention in 1976.
Rolls Press/Popperfoto via Getty Images

One evening in the early 1940s, she attended an event at the Plains United Methodist Church, where she became reacquainted with young Jimmy Carter, home from the U.S. Naval Academy. He remembered when she was born — the two families had lived next door to one another briefly, and his mother, Lillian, a registered nurse, had helped deliver her. All those years later, he asked her to a movie, and the following day, told his mother he had met the woman he was going to marry.  

The couple wed in 1946 and had four children — three boys, John William (“Jack”), James Earl III (“Chip”), Donnel Jeffrey (“Jeff”); and a daughter, Amy Lynn — but their life together could be difficult. Mrs. Carter did not always get along with her mother-in-law, who found her unsuitable for her son. And in the early years of their marriage, they struggled in attempting to grow the family peanut farm and supply business, living for a year in subsidized housing before becoming successful. Mrs. Carter learned accounting to manage their bookkeeping.   

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“It wasn’t long before I knew more about the business than he did. So I could give him advice. We learned to respect each other.”

The couple pulled even closer together when they returned to Georgia from the White House and learned that their business, which they had put in a blind trust during Carter’s presidency, was $1 million in debt. They began to rebuild with royalties from their many books — Mrs. Carter writing five, starting with First Lady from Plains in 1984. 

The Carters lived a purposeful, yet modest life in their post-presidential years. She had always been frugal — she wore the same gown from Carter’s swearing-in as governor to his inauguration as president — and the couple moved back into the house in Plains they built in 1961. Mrs. Carter turned her attention to establishing both the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving in Americus, Georgia, to spotlight family and professional caregivers, and the Rosalynn Carter Health and Human Sciences Complex at Georgia Southwestern State University, her alma mater.

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Rosalynn Carter works for Habitat for Humanity on a house in Benton Harbor, Michigan, in 2005.
R. Diamond/WireImage

Together, they started the Carter Center to combat disease and promote human rights around the globe, and became the best-known builders for Habitat for Humanity, which provides shelter for the disenfranchised. 

“When they worked with Habitat for Humanity, that wasn’t a PR stunt,” offers Chris Matthews, retired cable news network host and Carter’s former speechwriter. “Rosalynn had her nail apron on, and she carried two-by-fours around.”  

Indeed, when their home needed remodeling, the Carters tore down a bedroom wall by themselves. “By that time, we had worked with Habitat so much that it was just second nature,” she said.

Overall, “I’ve had a great life,” she told in 2017. “I’ve watched my family grow, I’ve traveled around the world, and I’ve had a chance to contribute some, I think.”  

Mrs. Carter then had a laugh at herself, thinking about her first birthday in the White House. “I turned 50, and I thought that was really bad.” But at 89 she knew the truth: “You can have a full life after 50.”

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