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First Lady Biography: Rosalynn Carter



Plains, Georgia
1927, August 18

Rosalynn Carter was named Eleanor Rosalynn at birth but always used her second name; contrary to some incorrect accounts, she was not named after Eleanor Roosevelt

Wilburn Edgar Smith, born November 20, 1896, Marion County, Georgia, town councilman, auto mechanic, school bus driver, store clerk, died October 22, 1940

Frances Allethea Murray, known as "Allie," born December 24, 1905, Plains, Georgia, died April 1, 2000; after the death of her husband, followed by the death a year later of her mother, and thus responsible for not only her four children but her elderly father, Allie Smith took on numerous jobs to support them - sewing, dairy farming, working in a grocery store, school cafeteria and U.S. Postal Office. Forced to leave her postal position at retirement age, Mrs. Smith so enjoyed working that she got a part-time job in a Plains, Georgia flower shop; she was employed there even during the initial days of the Carter presidency. Her long history of employment proved to be the primary example of work ethics for Rosalynn Carter, according to the First Lady. 

German, English; Rosalynn Carter had paternal and maternal ancestors from Stuttgart and Württemberg, Germany, the most recent immigrant being Johann singer, who was born in Stuttgart in 1784; Six generations back on her father's side, Andrew Peddy, her most recent English ancestor arrived from London, where he was born in 1730. Her ancestors migrated from Virginia and the Carolinas to Georgia. 

Birth Order and Siblings:
Eldest of four children, two brothers, one sister; Murray Smith (May 5, 1929 - November 20, 2003), Jerrold Smith (January 19, 1932- January 26, 2003), Lillian Allethea Smith Wall (born 1936)

Physical Appearance:
5'5" tall, auburn hair, hazel eyes 

Religious Affiliation:
Raised in Methodist faith but became a Baptist, the faith of her husband

Local grammar school and high school, Plains, Georgia, 1940-1944, upon her high school graduation, Rosalynn Carter was class valedictorian; Georgia Southwestern College, Americus, Georgia, 1944-1946

Occupation before Marriage:
Following the death of her father, the young Rosalynn Smith did her part to assist in supporting her family, working at a local hairdresser's shop to earn her own spending money. 

18 years old; on July 7, 1946 at the Plains Methodist Church, Plains, Georgia, to James Earl "Jimmy" Carter (born October 1, 1924, Plains, Georgia), recent Annapolis Naval Academy graduate; Rosalynn Smith and Jimmy Carter met through her friend, his sister, Ruth Carter; Rosalynn Smith refused Carter's initial marriage proposal of December 1945, considering it too soon in their dating, but accepted his second proposal two months later; as a navy engineer and commissioned officer, Carter's career dictated the life and location of his new wife and their subsequent children, who followed him from base to base; for the first seven years of the marriage, they lived in Norfolk, Virginia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, New London, Connecticut, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, San Diego, California, and Provincetown, Massachusetts. 

Three sons, one daughter; John William "Jack" Carter (born 1947), James Earl "Chip" Carter (born 1950), Donnel Jeffrey "Jeff" Carter (born 1952), Amy Lynn Carter Wentzel (born 1967) 

Occupation after Marriage:
Upon the 1953 death of his father, the Carters returned to Plains, Georgia to assume management of the family's peanut farming business. Although Rosalynn Carter did not wish to return to the small town, she successfully assumed the financial management of the agribusiness without drawing a salary. Without any hired assistance, Rosalynn Carter also raised her three sons and young daughter. She also subsequently helped Jimmy Carter campaign for his unsuccessful runs for state senator in 1962 and governor in 1966, and his successful run for the latter position in 1970. 

As First Lady of Georgia, Rosalynn Carter not only assumed the traditional role of a governor's spouse as hostess, she oversaw the landscaping of the grounds, authored a book about the governor's mansion, and took responsibility for the financial accounting of the operations there. Her primary focus, however, was in overhauling the state's mental health system. First exposed to an individual with a developmental disability as a young girl, and then made aware of how the state dealt with aid to those with mental and physical disability during the 1970 campaign, Rosalynn Carter committed herself to the issue. As a member of the Governor's Commission to Improve Services to the Mentally and Emotionally Handicapped in 1971, she continued to keep the issue in front of the state government and subsequently oversaw the initiation of reforms that more directly provided state services to those citizens who required aid. She also served as Honorary Chairperson of the Georgia Special Olympics from 1971 to 1975 and volunteered at an Atlanta hospital. All these activities provided Rosalynn Carter with a professional background on bridging legislative solutions to the issues facing the mentally ill. 

Presidential Campaign and Inauguration:
Few presidential candidates' spouses had the level of familiarity with the domestic and international issues and problems that shaped a national campaign as did Rosalynn Carter in 1976, when her husband won the Democratic nomination. For about two years prior to his candidacy, along with other members of their family, Rosalynn Carter traveled throughout the United States to help raise the public profile of her husband. Sometimes traveling alone or with just one companion, she actively sought media coverage for her husband's candidacy, sometimes appearing unannounced at local radio or television stations to speak about his views on the issues. She also became the first candidate's wife to declare a campaign promise of her own: if she became First Lady, she would assume the responsibility for guiding legislative reform on behalf of the nation's mentally ill. 

At the 1977 Inauguration, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter revived an Inaugural precedent performed only by Thomas Jefferson in 1801; after the swearing-in ceremony at the U.S. Capitol Building, they walked down Pennsylvania Avenue back to the White House. Wishing to make the Inaugural Ball a more populist celebration, they also reduced the cost of tickets. She later disclosed that she had influenced Carter to include a paragraph on American families in his Inaugural Address.

Perhaps no First Lady had a more overtly political role during a presidential campaign than did Rosalynn Carter as the incumbent during her husband's 1980 re-election. With the President confined to the White House during the Iranian Hostage Crisis, the First Lady registered his candidacy in the New Hampshire primary and made policy stump speeches as his representative throughout the winter and spring 1980 primary season. She organized her effort as the convention approached by keeping information cards on undeclared delegates whom she sought to persuade to support Carter over his challenger, Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy. In the general election, the First Lady spoke at large rallies against the Republican candidate Ronald Reagan, who defeated Carter on election day. 

First Lady:
January 20, 1977 - January 20, 1981
49 years old

Rosalynn Carter was a political activist First Lady who publicly disclosed the fact that the President consulted her and sought her advice on his domestic and foreign affairs decisions, speeches and appointments. Traveling the nation at length, Rosalynn Carter also served as a liaison of current information between the President and the American public she encountered, providing him with reaction to Administration policy from the citizenry and providing them with explanations of that policy. A consequence of this was her unprecedented attendance at Cabinet meetings where she heard policy discussion first-hand and took notes on issues that she would subsequently carry to the public. She and the President maintained a Wednesday business lunch in the Oval Office to discuss Administration policy on issues that she had taken on as a spokesperson or on legislative matters of concern to her. She was also not averse to disagreeing with the President's final decisions; most often her bone of contention was that Carter did not make decisions or announcements with a sense of timing that always served the Administration's political purposes including issues such as New York City budget cuts, the Panama Canal treaties, and Middle East negotiations. 

Rosalynn Carter was the first First Lady to maintain her office in the East Wing, the traditional office space reserved for the social, correspondence, scheduling and projects staff of the presidential spouse. She would often walk outside the mansion to avoid tourists going through the White House, carrying her briefcase with her. Frequently, the First Lady worked directly with Cabinet members, including the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Patricia Harris and Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Joseph Califano. In 1979, during her tenure, the federal government more formally recognized the role of First Lady as a bona fide federal position, albeit undefined by the U.S. Constitution, when automatic congressional appropriation was enacted for a staff for the First Lady on the premise that the "spouse assists the president" in fulfilling his duties. 

Rosalynn Carter assumed an active role in the Administration's response and initiative on behalf of several domestic and foreign issues. The largest and most important was her work as the Active Honorary Chair of the President's Commission on Mental Health, which began on February 17, 1977. The First Lady oversaw an advisory board of twenty commissioners composed of social workers, medical experts, lobbyists and psychiatrists who toured the nation, holding public hearings, consulting hundreds of community activists, doctors, legislators, and former mental health patients, while also developing thirty task forces, staffed by over 450 volunteers, concentrating on specialized issues and holding their conference gathering in the White House State Dining Room. The commission prepared recommendations in a final report, suggesting that a 1963 act be overhauled to strengthen community center services, erase state-federal overlaps and create changes to health insurance coverage, public housing, Medicaid and Medicare and state support for the most chronically mentally ill. There was also an advocacy recommendation for a bill of rights protecting the mentally ill from discrimination; such clauses were enacted within the federal bureaucracy immediately by presidential proclamation. After touring the National Institute of Mental Health, the First Lady was also able to initiate increases in federal grants to continue research which often lagged because the previous grants were short-term and too low. 

The Commission drew up a formal document with numerous recommendations for federal implementation of the most sweeping reform of mental health legislation in almost thirty years; the Administration submitted the Mental Health Systems Act and Rosalynn Carter testified on its behalf before the Senate Subcommittee on Health, on May 15, 1979. It was passed and funded in September 1980.

Her second most involved project involved aiding senior citizens in need. The First Lady assembled a task force to inventory federal programs for the elderly. She conferred frequently with the president's counselor on aging, and worked with advocates like the Gray Panthers as well as Congressman Claude Pepper, chair of the House Select Committee on Aging to devise a brochure containing recommendations on how to best serve the elderly within the community, which was distributed to national and state organizations. She also lobbied Congress for passage of the Age Discrimination Act to do away with mandatory age retirement within the federal workplace, and to raise the limit to seventy in the private sector. She further lobbied for the Older American Act, a funding increase in elderly services, as well as the Rural Clinics Act and Social Security reform to benefit seniors. Rosalynn Carter presided over the White House Conference on Aging. She was also successful in influencing the President to propose to Congress a limit on annual individual hospital increases by 9 percent and, with her, further tooled out a fixed fee schedule for physicians, more stringent bylaws for nursing homes and expanded outpatient services. 

Rosalynn Carter also promoted community voluntarism, using Washington, D.C. as her own example of her own hometown and supporting the Green Door, a self-help daytime program for the mentally retarded, and successfully urging civic groups and local businesses to provide a variety of donations to improve and maintain D.C. GeneralHospital and the fledgling Community Foundation of Greater Washington. She also helped in getting an at-risk youth program, Project Propinquity, a footing within the federal government and enlisted the financial support of business leaders to help the program qualify for matching federal funds.

Like her two Republican predecessors, Rosalynn Carter also supported the Equal Rights Amendment and she made appearances in those states where ratification was still pending. Although she also supported the controversial 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision of the Supreme Court, she opposed federal funding for abortion. As the incumbent First Lady, she joined former First Ladies Lady Bird Johnson and Betty Ford in Houston, Texas for the opening session of the Women's Conference in 1977. She successfully lobbied the Pentagon to hire more women to serve as White House honor guards and pushed to have minority women involved at higher levels in the president's re-election staff. She urged the Attorney General to join her call for a woman on the Supreme Court and phoned him to suggest the naming of qualified judge Stephanie Seymour for an Oklahoma court; for the President, she asked her staff to assemble a roster of qualified women for presidential appointments. 

In June of 1977, Rosalynn Carter undertook one of the most overtly political international missions ever assumed by a First Lady; she visited Jamaica, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela as the President's personal representative, holding substantive meetings with Central and South American policy leaders on issues that included human rights, arms reduction, demilitarization, beef exports, pilot training, drug trafficking, nuclear energy and weaponry. After each day's talks, she filed a report with the U.S. State Department. At many of her meetings the First Lady spoke in Spanish, having just previously completed an intensive language course. Throughout the breaks of the "Camp David Accords," peace talks negotiated by the President between Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, Rosalynn Carter was present to provide support and advice as her husband asked of her. As a representative of the President, she attended the inaugurations of new Bolivian and Ecuadorian presidents, as well as the funeral of Pope Paul VI. The First Lady was also the American representative who greeted Pope John Paul II when he made his first visit to the U.S. in 1979. The First Lady frequently sat in on the daily National Security Council briefings held for the president and senior staff. In November of 1979, she learned the details of the Cambodian refugee crisis; starvation and extermination had killed almost half the population of Cambodia and millions of homeless refugees were flocking to the Thailand border to seek food and medicine in large camps set up for them. She flew to see the conditions for herself and successfully urged the United Nations creation of a world relief coordinator. Her influence further prompted the creation of the National Cambodian Crisis Committee and CambodianCrisis Center, which became the clearinghouse for all donated aid; she raised millions of dollars for the cause in the U.S. and got the president to increase U.S. quotas for refugees, permit food delivery directly into Cambodia and to accelerate Peace Corps efforts. With the November 4, 1979 taking of American hostages in Iran, the First Lady urged the President to immediately enact an oil embargo from that nation. 

In the more traditional aspects of the First Lady role, Rosalynn Carter sponsored the first poetry festival and the first jazz festival at the White House, the latter being broadcast live on public radio. She also hosted a series of classical music concerts that were broadcasted for the public as In Performance at the White House. Continuing the preservation efforts of her immediate predecessors, she established the White House Trust Fund to create a $25 million endowment top continue building its perpetual historical collection and ongoing renovation needs. At Christmas, Rosalynn Carter hosted a unique winter lawn festival for congressional families, complete with skating rink.

Post-Presidential Life:
Upon leaving the White House in 1981, Rosalynn Carter remained active in the issues and policies to which she had devoted her tenure as First Lady through The Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia, a private, nonprofit institution founded by former President and Mrs. Jimmy Carter in 1982 , where she served as vice chair of the board of trustees until May 2005; she is a leading opponent of the death penalty and advocate for mental health issues, early childhood immunization, human rights, and conflict resolution.
Mrs. Carter created and chairs The Carter Center's Mental Health Task Force, an advisory body of experts, consumers, and advocates promoting positive change in the mental health field. She hosts an annual Rosalynn Carter Symposium on Mental Health Policy, bringing together leaders of the nation's mental health organizations to address critical issues.  Annual symposia have investigated such topics as mental illness and children, adolescents, and the elderly, financing mental health services and research, treating mental illness in the primary care setting, and stigma and mental illness.  In 1996, she started awarding Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism, one of the most successful national programs  to combat the stigma associated with mental illnesses. 
Mrs. Carter also chairsthe International Committee of Women Leaders for Mental Health, a global coalition of first ladies, royalty, and heads of state. Formed as a catalyst through which the expertise and influence of these prominent women could be channeled, the committee’s goals are to raise awareness about mental health issues, to identify and prioritize related needs in individual countries, and to implement appropriate actions. Under Mrs. Carter’s leadership, this prestigious group meets periodically to continue its work to improve mental health worldwide.
She served on the Policy Advisory Board of The Atlanta Project, a program of The Carter Center addressing the social ills associated with poverty and quality of life citywide, from the program's inception in 1991 until its transfer to Georgia State University in 1999. In 1988, she convened with three other former first ladies the "Women and the Constitution" conference at the Center to assess that document's impact on women. 
Outside of The Carter Center, Mrs. Carter is president of the board of directors for the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving at Georgia Southwestern State University, which was established in her honor on the campus of her alma mater in Americus, Ga. Through research, education, and training, the RCI promotes the mental health and well-being of individuals, families, and professional caregivers, delineates effective caregiving practices, builds public awareness of caregiving needs, and advances public and social policies that enhance caring communities.   In 1991, she launched with Mrs. Betty Bumpers, wife of  former (or "then") U.S. Senator Dale Bumpers of Arkansas, "Every Child By Two," a nationwide campaign to publicize the need for early childhood immunizations.   
Mrs. Carter  is involved with Habitat for Humanity, a network of volunteers who build homes for the needy, and Project Interconnections, a public/private nonprofit partnership to provide housing for homeless people who are mentally ill. She served as distinguished centennial lecturer at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga., from 1988-92 and is currently a distinguished fellow at the Emory University Department of Women's Studies in Atlanta. 
A former board member of the Gannett Company, she has also received many honors, including The Volunteer of the Decade and "Into the Light" awards from the National Mental Health Association, The Award of Merit for Support of the Equal Rights Amendment from the National Organization for Women, The Notre Dame Award for International Service, The Eleanor Roosevelt Living World Award from Peace Links, The Kiwanis World Service Medal from Kiwanis International Foundation, The Jefferson Award from the American Institute for Public Service, The Georgia Woman of the Year Award from the Georgia Commission on Women, The Rhoda and Bernard Sarnat International Prize in Mental Health from the Institute of Medicine, The United States Surgeon General's Medallion, and The Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian honor. In 2001 she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame. 
She has written several books: her autobiography, First Lady from Plains (1984), Everything to Gain...Making the Most of the rest of Your Life (1987) co-authored with her husband, and Helping Yourself Help Others: A Book for Caregivers (1994) and Helping Someone with Mental Illness : A Compassionate Guide for Family, Friends, and Caregivers  (1998), the latter two written with Susan Golant.
Rosalynn Carter continues to travel and speak throughout the world and enjoys fly-fishing, bird-watching,  swimming, and biking. She lives with the former president in Plains and Atlanta, Georgia.

In 2006, the former First Lady resumed her skills on the campaign trail. Her efforts on behalf of her son Jack who was then seeking the U.S. Senate seat from Nevada brought her to several senior citizen centers, the type of facilities she had helped to institutionally strengthen during her White House years. Her son, however, was unsuccessful in his challenge to incumbent Republican John Ensign.

In 2009, she co-wrote with her husband the foreword to the book, Stop the Epidemic: The Last Dropout, giving support in the effort to help eradicate high school drop out rates.

In May of 2010, Mrs. Carter authored Within Our Reach: Ending the Mental Health Crisis and throughout the year traveled the U.S. to carry the message of her work, including an appearance as a guest on the popular "The Daily Show." Among the many startling facts she raised in the book was how American prison systems often become the only institutional provider of help to those suffering from mental illness. She also renewed an effort to reduce and correct harmful depiction of those with mental illness in the media, whether it is in the news or entertainment. She pointed out that the American suicide rate was higher than the homicide rate, and that ten out of the one hundred Americans who commit suicide daily are children. In light of new medical advances, the former First Lady also emphasized a note of hope, emphasizing that full recovery from many mental health problems had become increasingly possible. 
Rosalynn Carter has also become an advocate for addressing the unmet needs of the large percentage of members of the U.S. Armed Forces returning from Iraq or Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. The issue is one in which the former First Lady and incumbent First Lady Michelle Obama stated that they intend to jointly address. When Mrs. Carter is in Washington, she will often visit with her successor, and was among several women family members of past presidents honored at a Mother’s Day 2010 event hosted by Mrs. Obama.