Eleanor Rosalynn Smith was born in Plains, Georgia, on August 18, 1927, to Allethea “Allie” and Wilburn Edgar Smith. As the oldest child, Rosalynn helped her mother manage the household and raise her three siblings following Wilburn’s death when she was thirteen years old.1 In 1944, she graduated from Plains High School as the valedictorian and then graduated from Georgia Southwestern College in 1946.2
In 1945, Rosalynn began dating Jimmy Carter, the older brother of her childhood friend Ruth Carter. The pair carried on a correspondence when he returned to the U.S. Naval Academy, and they married on July 7, 1946. Following their marriage, Rosalynn and Jimmy moved to Norfolk, Virginia, and continued to move wherever Jimmy was stationed around the country. Rosalynn gave birth to four children—John William, James Earl III, Donnel Jeffrey, and Amy Lynn.3
After the death of his father in 1953, Jimmy Carter left the Navy and the Carter family returned to Plains. Rosalynn helped handle the accounting for the family’s peanut farm and warehouse and supported her husband’s political campaigns for state senator and governor of Georgia.4 When Jimmy became governor in 1970, Rosalynn assumed the role of First Lady of Georgia. As first lady, she began what would become a lifelong advocacy for mental health, encouraging her husband to establish the Governor’s Commission to Improve Services to the Mentally and Emotionally Handicapped.5
Rosalynn continued to support her husband’s political ambitions, campaigning for him across the country when he ran for president in 1976. Following his Inauguration, Rosalynn walked beside him down Pennsylvania Avenue, demonstrating their commitment to the people of the United States and their equal partnership.6 As first lady, Rosalynn took on an activist approach helping further shape and transform the role of first lady while continuing to advocate for mental health. When Jimmy Carter established the President’s Commission on Mental Health in 1977, he attempted to appoint her as the chair of the commission. However, due to lack of clarity surrounding the role of first lady, she was forced to serve as “honorary chair.”7
In 1978, the passage of the White House Personnel Authorization Act provided some clarity about the role of first lady, allowing for staff and resources in the budget to support Rosalynn and establishing the modern Office of the First Lady.8 She set up her offices in the East Wing, creating a precedent for future first ladies. Rosalynn also hosted White House events, attended cabinet meetings, testified before Congress in favor of the Mental Health System Act, joined former first ladies Lady Bird Johnson and Betty Ford at the 1977 National Women’s Conference to rally support for the Equal Rights Amendment, and traveled as an envoy to South America to engage in policy discussions with leaders.9
Shortly after leaving the White House, Rosalynn and Jimmy founded The Carter Center, a private, nonprofit institution committed to human rights, the resolution of conflicts, improved health initiatives, and the enhancement of freedom and democracy. She serves on the board of trustees, as a “full partner with the president in all the center’s activities.” In addition to her work with the Carter Center, Rosalynn worked with Habitat for Humanity, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1999, and was inducted into the Women’s Hall of Fame in 2001. She has also authored five books: First Lady From Plains, Everything to Gain: Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life, Helping Yourself Help Others: A Book for Caregivers, Mental Illness: A Compassionate Guide for Family, Friends, and Caregivers, and Within Our Reach: Ending the Mental Health Crisis.10 Today, she still resides in Plains, Georgia, with her husband.
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