Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter died Sunday at the age of 96 and is remembered not only for her life as a devoted wife and mother, but also for her political activities.
Her husband’s aides sometimes referred to the first lady with the longest marriage in history – 77 years – as “co-president” because of her overall involvement in President Jimmy Carter’s decision-making while he led the nation.
Rosalynn Carter is said to have defined the modern role of First Lady. She considered herself not only a figurehead and helper of her husband, but also an activist with significant influence.
She became known as “Steel Magnolia”, a reference to her gentle southern demeanor and accent, which accompanied her iron will and ambition to equal her husband.
When Jimmy Carter defeated Ronald Reagan in a landslide in 1980, it was Rosalynn Carter, not the former president, who was considering a potential political comeback.
Just months into his term, President Carter sent Rosalynn on a political mission to Latin America to deliver a message to dictators that his administration was serious about refusing aid to those who violated their people’s human rights
Rosalynn Carter became the first first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt to testify before Congress
In the years that followed their life together in Washington, both halves of the couple stated that she was the more political of the pair.
In 1977, just months into his term, President Carter sent Rosalynn on a political mission to Latin America to deliver a message to dictators that his administration was serious about refusing aid to those who violated their people’s human rights.
At various points during Carter’s single term, Mrs. Carter was forced to publicly deny that she exercised undue influence over the activities of the US government.
For all her excitement about politics and commitment to her husband’s career, she said that once the president makes a decision, there is no real way to change it.
In an anecdote shared by the New York Times, the president decided in early 1977 to lower the White House thermostats to 65 degrees during the day and 55 degrees at night – an energy-saving strategy.
When her husband refused her request to turn up the heat, she decided to wear only long underwear until he could reconsider.
As a servant of the people, Carter chose mental health and the issues plaguing the elderly as her primary political focus.
She served as honorary chairwoman of the Presidential Commission on Mental Health.
While serving as chairwoman, she once testified before a Senate subcommittee, becoming the first first lady to address a congressional panel since Eleanor Roosevelt.
About 16 years ago, Rosalynn returned to Washington before Congress, still pushing for mental health care.
“We’ve been working on this for so long that it finally feels like it’s within reach,” she said in 2007.
Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter pictured in Washington, D.C., 1979
Rosalynn Carter said she discovered her passion for mental health while campaigning for her husband. People told her about their problems and her husband explained to her that he was the closest to many of them to reach someone who could maybe help
Rosalynn Carter, Jimmy Carter and Amy Carter – the youngest of the four Carter children – on the South Lawn of the White House. around July 24, 1977
She attributed the time she spent on her husband’s campaigns for governor of Georgia to her interest in mental health.
“I used to come home and ask Jimmy, ‘Why do people tell me about their problems?’ and he said, “Because you might be the only person they will ever see who might be close to someone who can help them.”
The Carters are known for building a large American family. The couple fathered four children of their own – three boys and a girl, and became grandparents to 22 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Eleanor Rosalynn Smith was born on August 18, 1927, in Plains, the oldest of four children. Her father died when she was young, so she took over most of the responsibilities of caring for her siblings while her mother went to work part-time.
She also contributed to supporting the family by working in a beauty salon after school. “We were very poor and worked hard,” she once said, but she continued her education, graduating from high school as valedictorian.
She soon fell in love with the brother of one of her best friends. Jimmy and Rosalynn had known each other all their lives – it was Jimmy’s mother, nurse Lillian Carter, who gave birth to baby Rosalynn – but he left for the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, while she was still in high school.
In a statement released by the Carter Center, President Carter called Rosalynn his “equal partner in all I have ever accomplished.”
“She gave me wise guidance and encouragement when I needed it. As long as Rosalynn was in the world, I always knew that someone loved and supported me,” he said.
The Carters are known for building a large American family. The couple fathered four children of their own – three boys and a girl, and in turn became grandparents to 22 grandchildren and great-grandchildren
“She gave me wise guidance and encouragement when I needed it. As long as Rosalynn was in the world, I always knew someone loved and supported me,” President Carter said of his wife
She is survived by her children, Jack, Chip, Jeff and Amy, as well as 11 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.
Her son Chip said of his mother: “Her life of service and compassion was an example to all Americans. She will be greatly missed not only by our family, but by the many people who now have better mental health care and access to the resources they need for care.”
Her death follows the decision in February this year to place the former president in a care facility after “a series of short hospital stays.”
She died on November 19 at her home in Plains, Georgia, surrounded by her family.