It’s hard to remember now, due to both the rosy hues of time and the personalities and pratfalls of subsequent First Ladies, but Rosalynn Carter, wife of Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the United States, was one tough customer. History has smoothed her edges so that many recall her, vaguely, as a sweet but sturdy Southern woman—if not a belle, then someone who seemed nice enough but was in no way a world-beater, nothing like the forever-thwarted Hillary Clinton or the supremely confident Michelle Obama.?
Part of this misguided legacy has to do with geographical bias. Rosalynn Carter—who passed away Sunday at the age of 96 after having been diagnosed with dementia—came from small-town Georgia, like her husband, and upon their taking up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, political Washington came down with a bad case of what the writer Nicholas Lemann has called rubophobia. The Carters were dismissed as rednecks, pure and simple. They spoke with Southern accents. They had run a?peanut farm. Rosalynn?wore the?same dress she had worn to her husband’s 1971 Georgia gubernatorial ball for his presidential fête in 1977. (Worse, it came from someplace called Jason’s in someplace called Americus, Georgia.) The couple banned hard liquor from White House dinners. “I just don’t want to,” Rosalynn told a skeptical reporter for?The New York Times. “Not for religious reasons. I just don’t want to. Besides, I’m saving the taxpayers’ money.” In fact, the Carters were big on praying too, and, perhaps worse, in the eyes of their detractors, they were sincere in their faith. Maybe it’s no wonder that the excesses of the Reagan years came as something of a relief in the Carters’ wake, and why Rosalynn’s fuddy-duddy reputation persists.
But she never was that, really. It is useful to recall that in 1977 and 1979 a Gallup poll designated Rosalynn the most popular woman in the world among Americans, and in 1980 she tied for the same honor with Mother Teresa, whose reputation has since suffered?blows. Reading over several biographical accounts in recent days, what has come through most is how Rosalynn Carter managed to be both partner and individual. She was a woman of a generation that could (almost but not quite) operate independently, a bridge between the First Ladies who were silent helpmates and those who could (almost) act as individuals in their own right. Though it isn’t frequently noted, the Carters?presaged the package deal later offered by Bill and Hillary Clinton.
She was the right person at the right time for that?societal shift. Eleanor Rosalynn Smith (pronounced “Rose-a-lynn,” never “Roz-a-lynn”) grew up in modest circumstances in Plains, Georgia, wearing clothes made by her dressmaker mother. She was devoted to her father, an auto mechanic and bus driver, who encouraged her to excel in high school, which she did, and to go on to college and find wider horizons. He died of leukemia when Rosalynn was 13, and she was driven to fulfill his ambitions for her. (“My childhood really ended at that moment,” she would later write in her autobiography,?First Lady from Plains, of the moment he told her about his illness.)
The road to that wider world appeared in the form of a US Naval Academy student by the name of James Earl Carter Jr., whom she started dating in 1945. (They had met years before, when Carter was three, and his mother, an enterprising nurse who came to be known as “Miz” Lillian, helped?deliver Rosalynn.) Their love-at-almost-first-sight story became a staple of news reports from the time Jimmy started running for public office, and, by the time he was elected president, was part of a romantic gloss that feature writers so adore. The tale has staying power because it was true. Yes, Rosalynn was royally?peeved when, in 1953, Jimmy gave up his naval career (and the travels she loved) to run the family’s peanut farm in Plains after Carter’s father died. However, that was the beginning of the collaboration that eventually landed Jimmy in the Georgia State Senate and then the governor’s mansion. “We developed a partnership when we were working in the farm supply business, and it continued when Jimmy got involved in politics,” Rosalynn?told the Associated Press. “I knew more on paper about the business than he did. He would take my advice about things.” Jimmy didn’t argue. “The?best thing I ever did was marrying Rosalynn,” he said in a Carter Center interview in 2015. “That’s the pinnacle of my life.”
That kind of alliance was relatively new in the 1970s. Rosalynn was willing to take on the traditional First Lady duties, like picking a noble cause and promoting it. (Hers was mental health.) She managed the lives of the four Carter children—some of whom moved into the White House, with spouses—and established a precedent by requesting that the press leave her youngest child, Amy, then nine, out of the news. (A lot of grousing ensued at the time.)
Simultaneously, Rosalynn served as a true partner in her husband’s presidency. She applied herself like the A student she had been in high school, studying briefings, sitting in on cabinet meetings, taking notes, serving as an all-purpose adviser, rewriting dry speeches, heading diplomatic trips, and sharing her opinion during pillow talks. She was the first First Lady to have her own office in the East Wing and was not happy with media accounts that suggested she didn’t know how to throw a proper dinner party. (After all, she had been First Lady of Georgia.)
Then there were her diplomatic duties. President Carter was famously thin-skinned, and grew more so as his political capital declined—it went from a high of? 75% in 1977 to a 28% low in 1979. Aides came to learn that Rosalynn was the lone confidant who truly had his ear. “She was the only person who could talk to Jimmy with total frankness because he knew she had his back,” the author Lawrence Wright, who has written extensively about the Carters, told me. “People who worked for him talked about how prickly and how stern he was, but she just went right past that.”
Still, Rosalynn got testy herself when her husband referred to her in?The New York Times as “a perfect extension of myself.” She wasn’t interested in being an extension of anyone. “You can make the First Lady’s job whatever you want it to be,” she?said at the time. “To some women, the job is more involved with the entertaining. They feel at home doing the things at home. I’ve always worked. I can’t stay at home and do Cokes and teas, although I think that for those people who want to do that, then that’s surely important to them.” (Rosalynn’s qualifier probably saved her from the?drubbing Hillary Clinton got for saying nearly the same thing in 1992.)? Rosalynn worked hard with former First Lady Betty Ford to back the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, and its failure to be enacted was one of the biggest disappointments of her White House years.
If Jimmy Carter became known for redefining a former president’s post-presidential years as one of activism and good works, Rosalynn deserves equal credit. Their teamwork continued with the creation of the Carter Center, the goal of which is to advance human rights and improve health, and the couple traveled the world monitoring elections, helping to eradicate disease, and supporting the growth of democratic institutions. In the US, they supported Habitat for Humanity, building homes in underserved areas. The only thing they didn’t share was the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize, which went to her husband alone, an indication that even the closest partnerships can only go so far.
Undaunted, Rosalynn kept at her good works. She continued to be an advocate for mental health, establishing, among other things, the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers. Perhaps more importantly, she successfully fought for insurance coverage of mental illnesses, which passed Congress in 2008.
The Carters celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary in 2021 with a big bash back in Plains, when she was 93 and Jimmy 96. He attributed the success of their marriage to mutual interests that included bird watching and shared Bible reading. I attribute it to a woman who found a balance between being a loyal wife and being loyal to herself.
As the end came closer, they seemed to be going their separate ways.?Jimmy opted for hospice care at home after a series of health crises, while Rosalynn slipped into dementia.?Then,?by this November, she too became a residential hospice patient. They had?put away their twin StairMasters and settled into twin recliners, waiting for one of the few things they couldn’t pursue together.