Rosalynn Carter was married for 77 years to Jimmy Carter, the 39th President of the United States (1977 to 1981) and 2002 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who is now 99 years old.
“Rosalynn has been my equal partner in everything I have ever accomplished,” said President Carter. “She provided wise guidance and encouragement when I needed it. As long as Rosalynn was in the world, I always knew I was loved and supported.”
She is survived by their children – Jack, Chip, Jeff and Amy – and 11 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren. One of the grandsons died in 2015. “In addition to being a loving mother and an exceptional first lady, my mother was a great people person in her own right,” said Chip Carter.
“Her life of service and compassion was an example to all Americans. He will be greatly missed not only by our family, but by many people who today have better mental health care and access to resources for caregivers.”
But the first lady’s journey to the role of human rights activist was long. During her husband’s first political campaigns, Rosalynn Carter was content with working “behind the curtain”. After he was elected governor in 1970, however, she gained new confidence in her role as official hostess of the state and in her public speaking duties.
Already during her husband’s 1976 presidential campaign, Mrs. Carter earned the nickname “Steel Magnolia,” a reference to her gentle Southern demeanor that hid an ambitious and determined nature.
According to eyewitnesses, she held an unusually powerful position during her husband’s administration, earning her the nickname co-president from White House staff. She participated in cabinet meetings, expressed her views on the hottest topics, and represented her husband on foreign trips.
In May and June 1977, President Carter sent his wife on a diplomatic trip to Latin America that was business rather than social and unprecedented for a first lady. Her grueling journey took her to seven countries, covering over 12,000 miles in thirteen days. Her mission was to explain American foreign policy to that part of the world that her husband felt the United States had neglected.
She negotiated with Central and South American government officials on issues related to human rights, beef exports, arms reduction, demilitarization, drug trafficking, and nuclear energy. She reported to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs after each day of meetings. She spoke Spanish at many of the meetings because she had completed an intensive language course shortly before the trip.
After entering the White House, she also continued her earlier activities with helping people who suffered from psychological problems. She became interested in mental health in part because of childhood memories of a distant cousin from the Plains who ended up in and out of a state mental institution.
During the many crises that the presidential couple had to deal with during their engagement in the White House, she was always by Carter’s side, and he himself recalled on many occasions (in memoirs and interviews) how important her presence was to him.
Shortly after the end of Carter’s term in 1982, the couple co-founded the Carter Center, where Rosalynn continued to work on mental health issues as chair of the Mental Health Task Force. She has written or co-authored five books, mostly on childcare and mental health.
As part of the Carter Center, she went all over the world to support human rights and peace initiatives and monitored elections. She and her husband spent one week a year building homes for low-income people with Habitat for Humanity, and they built or rebuilt more than 4,300 homes in 14 countries.
Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter in a 1966 photo.
By her old age, Rosalynn was already suffering from dementia and staying in hospice. She was then transferred home earlier this week. It was there in the circle of her closest relatives that she finally died on Sunday, November 19, 2023.
During one of the interviews in 2018, the couple walked down the street and passed the Plains Methodist Church. The former president pointed to it and said that it was there that he met his wife. They reportedly went to the movies afterward, and Carter told his mother the next day that he would marry Rosalynn one day.
“I had no idea about that for years,” she smiled and took his hand. The interviewer then asked them if they wanted anything. “I can’t think of anything,” the president said, turning to Rosalynn. “And you?”
“No, I’m happy,” she replied.