20 Nov 2023

Former US first lady Rosalynn Carter dies at 96

10:50 am on 20 November 2023
Former US first lady Rosalynn Carter attends the Death Penalty Focus Awards, at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on 20 April, 2004 in Beverly Hills, California.

Former US first lady Rosalynn Carter has died at the age of 96. Photo: FREDERICK M. BROWN / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / AFP

Former US first lady Rosalynn Carter, who President Jimmy Carter called "an extension of myself" owing to her prominent role in his administration even as she tirelessly promoted the cause of mental health, died on Sunday at age 96, the Carter Center said.

She died peacefully with her family by her side, a statement said.

In May 2023, the Carter family had said she had dementia but was continuing to live happily at the couple's home in Plains, Georgia.

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter were the longest-married presidential couple, having wed in 1946 when he was 21 and she was 18. After his solo term ended in 1981, he also enjoyed more post-White House years than any president before him, and she played an instrumental role during those years, including as part of the non-profit Carter Center and the Habitat for Humanity charity.

"The best thing I ever did was marry Rosalynn," Carter told the C-SPAN cable TV channel in 2015. "That's the pinnacle of my life."

She was seen as unassuming and quiet before coming to Washington in 1977 but developed into an eloquent speaker, campaigner and activist.

Her abiding passion, which carried far beyond her White House years, was for the mentally ill, not because of any personal connection but because of a strong feeling that advocacy was needed.

US President Jimmy Carter, accompanied by his wife Rosalynn and their daughter Amy, waves as they visit the city of Shimoda, Japan, on the fringe of the G7 summit on 28 June, 1979.

US US President Jimmy Carter and his wife First Lady Rosalynn Carter, are pictured on a June 1979 visit to the city of Shimoda, Japan, on the fringe of the G7 summit. Photo: PANA PHOTO / AFP

Before Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976, Roslynn was largely unknown outside of Georgia, where her husband had been a peanut farmer-turned-governor. A Democrat, he served one four-year term, losing his 1980 re-election bid to Ronald Reagan, a Republican former California governor and Hollywood actor.

In Washington, the Carters were a team, with the president calling her "an extension of myself" and "my closest adviser." She was often invited to sit in as an observer at Cabinet meetings and political strategy discussions. In a 1978 interview with magazine editors, Carter said he shared almost everything with his wife except top-secret material.

"I think she understands the consciousness of the American people and their attitudes perhaps better than do I," he said.

The first lady also was sent on important official missions to Latin America and was part of the unsuccessful campaign for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution to ensure equal treatment of women under the law.

The Iranian hostage crisis - in which American diplomats and others were held captive in Tehran after the Islamic revolution - occurred when Carter was seeking re-election. The crisis contributed to the downfall of his presidency as he refrained from campaigning while trying to resolve the stand-off.

During that time, Rosalynn Carter sought to support her husband by speaking in 112 cities in 34 states during a 44-day tour. Her speeches and forays into crowds were credited with helping Carter defeat Democratic challenger Ted Kennedy in the 1980 primaries, although he went on to lose overwhelmingly to Reagan in the general election.

Mental health interest

Eleanor Rosalynn Smith was born 18 August, 1927, in Plains to Edgar and Alice Smith, and married Carter on 7 July, 1946. They went on to have four children.

Her interest in mental health issues stemmed from the early 1970s when she began to realise, while helping her husband campaign for governor, the depth of the problem in her home state of Georgia and the reluctance of people to talk about it.

Former US President Jimmy Carter (L) and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter attend the 25th anniversary MusiCares 2015 Person Of The Year Gala honoring Bob Dylan at the Los Angeles Convention Center on 6 February, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.

Former US President Jimmy Carter and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, pictured in 2015. The first lady's abiding passion, which carried far beyond her White House years, was for the mentally ill. Photo: Frazer Harrison / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP

As first lady of Georgia, she was a member of a governor's commission to improve services for the mentally ill.

In the White House, she became honorary chair of the President's Commission on Mental Health, key to passage of a 1980 act that helped fund local mental health centres.

After leaving Washington she pursued her work through the Carter Center, a private, non-profit institution the Carters founded in Atlanta in 1982. She continued to advocate for mental health, early childhood immunisation, human rights, conflict resolution and the empowerment of urban communities.

"I hope our legacy continues, more than just as first lady, because the Carter Center has been an integral part of our lives. And our motto is waging peace, fighting disease and building hope. And I hope that I have contributed something to mental health issues and help improve a little bit the lives of people living with mental illnesses," she told C-SPAN in a 2013 interview.

Speaking about her 1998 book Helping Someone With Mental Illness, Carter said she longed for the day when the mentally ill would be free from discrimination.

In their post-Washington years the Carters were also key figures in the Habitat For Humanity charity, helping build homes for needy families. Their humanitarian efforts were crowned in 2002 when Jimmy Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

"I am especially grateful to Rosalynn, who has been a part of everything I've done," a teary-eyed Jimmy Carter said in a speech in Plains on the day he learned that he had won the award.

Former president Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn prior to the game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Cincinnati Bengals at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on 30 September, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia.

Former president Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn, pictured at a September 2018 American football game, were the longest-married presidential couple, having wed in 1946 when he was 21 and she was 18. Photo: Scott Cunningham / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / AFP

Both Carters were active members of the Plains community, including at the Maranatha Baptist Church where Rosalynn served as a deacon and the former president as a deacon and long-time Sunday school teacher.

Rosalynn Carter was elected to the Gannett Co board of directors in 1983. She published her autobiography, First Lady From Plains, in 1984 and wrote three other books. In 2001, she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.

- Reuters