“She’s the girl I want to marry,” Jimmy Carter told his mother after his first date with 17-year-old Rosalynn Smith, who had grown up as a friend and neighbor of the Carter family in Plains, Georgia.
Born in Plains on August 18, 1927, Rosalynn was the first of four children in the family of Allethea Murray Smith and Wilburn Edgar Smith. She grew up in a small-town atmosphere that nurtured strong ties to family and dedication to church and community. When she was 13, her father died and her mother became a dressmaker to help support the family. As the oldest child, Rosalynn worked beside her mother, helping with the sewing, the housekeeping, and the other children.
Times were difficult, but Rosalynn completed high school and enrolled in Georgia Southwestern College at Americus. In 1945, after her freshman year, she first dated Jimmy Carter, who was home from the U. S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. Their romance progressed, and in 1946 they were married.
The young couple went to Norfolk, Virginia, Ensign Carter’s first duty station after graduation. The navy kept them on the move. Their sons were born in different places: John William in Virginia, James Earl III in Hawaii, and Donnel Jeffrey in Connecticut. The Carters’ only daughter, Amy Lynn, was born in Georgia in 1967.
When his father died in 1953, Jimmy left the service, and the Carters returned to Plains to run the family business. Managing the accounts of the peanut, fertilizer, and seed enterprise, Rosalynn soon found herself working full time.
Jimmy entered politics in 1962, winning a seat in the Georgia Senate. Rosalynn, an important member of his campaign team, helped develop support for her husband’s successful bid for the governorship of Georgia in 1970. During his presidential campaigns, Rosalynn traveled independently throughout the United States. Her belief in her husband’s ability to lead the nation was communicated in a quiet, friendly manner that made her an effective campaigner.
A skillful speaker and a hardworking first lady, Mrs. Carter managed routine duties and special projects in her office in the East Wing. She attended cabinet meetings and major briefings, frequently represented the chief executive at ceremonial occasions, and served as the president’s personal emissary to Latin American countries.
As first lady, she focused national attention on the performing arts. She invited to the White House leading classical artists from around the world, as well as traditional American artists. She also took a strong interest in programs to aid mental health, the community, and the elderly. From 1977 to 1978, she served as the honorary chairperson of the President’s Commission on Mental Health.
After returning home, Mrs. Carter wrote her autobiography, First Lady From Plains, published in 1984. She is a director of the Carter Center, where she manages an active mental health program and works with human rights, conflict resolution, and childhood immunization. She also shares her community service talents with Habitat for Humanity, an organization that builds homes for the underprivileged.
You Might Also Like
Mid-Century Fashion and the First Ladies: From Ready-to-Wear to Haute Couture
Foreword, William SealeThe Style of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt: Fashion and Frugality in Times of Depression and War, Morgan BlattenbergThe...
The 2021 First Ladies Symposium
The First Ladies
Read Digital Edition Foreword, William SealeThe Office of the First Lady: Managing Public Duties, Private Lives, and Changing Expectations, Anita...
First Ladies' Private Lives
In the early decades of the republic a president's wife, like other wives, seldom displayed her private life to the...
Collection Animal Ambassadors
Animals, whether pampered household pets, working livestock, birds, squirrels, or strays, have long been a major part of White House...
Podcast Entertaining at the White House
From diplomatic dinners to holiday gatherings, the White House has always played a central role in the nation’s official en...
Collection Women and the White House
While there has yet to be a female president, women have played an integral role in shaping the White House...
Collection The Presidents
Biographies & Portraits
Collection Cherry Blossoms
Since the first cherry blossom planting in 1912 by First Lady Helen Herron Taft, Washingtonians have celebrated the scenic beauty and...
Podcast Fearless Leadership: A Conversation with Jean Case
Fearless leaders have walked the halls of White House for centuries. In this episode, White House Historical Association President Stewart...
Collection The First Ladies
Biographies & Portraits
Reading Lists & Bibliography
General White House Bibliography:Aikman, Lonnelle. The Living White House. Washington, D.C.: The White House Historical Association, 1996. Cunliffe, Marcus....