Rosalynn Carter, a former first lady of the United States and lifelong advocate for women’s rights, human rights, and mental health, died on Sunday, November 19, 2023, at home in Plains, Georgia, according to a statement from the Carter Center. She was 96 years old.
Carter and her husband, former President Jimmy Carter, now 99, celebrated their 77th wedding anniversary this year, making them the longest-married presidential couple in history, according to the Atlanta news station 11 Alive.
Just two days before her death, the Carter Center announced that she had entered hospice care at home. Roughly six months ago, her family released a statement sharing that she had been diagnosed with dementia.
Rosalynn Carter is survived by her husband, 4 children, 11 grandchildren, and 14 great grandchildren.
Rosalynn Carter was born on August 18, 1927, in Plains, Georgia. The oldest of four children, she helped her mother manage the house and raise her younger siblings after her father’s death when she was just 13 years old, according to the White House Historical Association.
After graduating high school as valedictorian, Carter attended Georgia Southwestern College and then transferred to the University of Georgia. She left college early, in 1946 at the age of 18, to marry the future president.
The couple had four children together and eventually moved to Plains, where Jimmy Carter became involved in local politics, first serving as a state senator and then as governor of Georgia.
This time also marked the beginning of Mrs. Carter’s interest and advocacy efforts in mental health, as she served on the governor’s commission to improve services to the mentally and emotionally handicapped, and volunteered to work with patients and families at the state mental hospital, per the Washington Post.
Carter Advocated for Women’s Rights and Mental Health During Her Time at the White House
Rosalynn Carter served alongside her husband during his presidency from 1977 to 1981. During his tenure, she and the president supported the Equal Rights Amendment, and Mrs. Carter encouraged women to work outside the home. She even lobbied the Pentagon to hire more women as White House honor guards, according to the University of Virginia Miller Center.
She was the first presidential spouse to establish an official Office of the First Lady in the East Wing of the White House, in 1977, and the first to hire a chief of staff with a rank and salary commensurate with that of other White House personnel.
Carter also continued to push for more resources, support, and understanding for people with mental health issues. As the active honorary chair of the President’s Commission on Mental Health during her time in the White House, she helped bring about passage of the landmark Mental Health Systems Act of 1980, which provided grants to community mental health centers and social support systems.
Life After the Presidency
After leaving the White House, the Carters founded the Carter Center, a nonprofit with the mission of improving the quality of life for people in the United States and in developing nations around the world.
Through the center and on her own, Rosalynn continued to advocate for mental health. She founded or held leadership roles in the Rosalynn Carter Symposium, the Carter Center Mental Health Task Force, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
In 1987, the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers was established to promote the health, strength, and resilience of all caregivers at every stage of their journey.
“There are only four kinds of people in the world,” Carter liked to say. “Those who have been caregivers, those who are currently caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who will need caregivers.”
In 1991, in response to a U.S. measles epidemic that caused 55,000 illnesses, 11,000 hospitalizations, and 120 deaths, Carter cofounded the Every Child by Two program, designed to encourage people to vaccinate their children against preventable diseases.
In 1999, the Carters were both awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor.
Although Rosalynn devoted her time to a variety of human rights issues, it is her legacy of over 50 years of mental health activism that has forever changed the way mental illness is viewed and treated. Her work will continue to inspire others to work toward a world where mental health is treated with the same level of importance and respect as physical health.
Rosalynn Carter’s Intestinal Issues
In February 2018, at the age of 90, Carter had surgery on a portion of her small intestine to remove “troubling scar tissue” that had formed after the removal of a cyst decades earlier.
After the surgery, her husband provided more details about her health history. “For the last 25 years, she has had trouble with her intestines and bowels. Saturday night they operated and found that scar tissue from the old operation about 50 years ago had strangled almost two feet of her small intestine,” he said, according to a 2018 Atlanta Journal-Constitution report.
Famous for Frugality
The Carters were known for their frugality and practicality. Even after the presidency, they lived in a two-bedroom home in Plains, according to a CNBC report. Rosalynn refused to serve hard liquor at White House events, citing cost considerations, and wore the same gown to the 1977 presidential inaugural ball that she had worn when her husband was elected governor, according to Britannica.