Born Eleanor Rosalynn Carter, the former first lady, who was often referred to as Steel Magnolia by the press, passed away peacefully at her home in Plains, Georgia on November 19, 2023 at the ripe old age of 96.
Rosalynn Carter was born in Plains, Georgia, on August 18th, 1927. As the eldest of 4 children, she had to grow up quickly and help her mother in raising her younger siblings. This was after the death of her father when she was just 13 years old. Having been born into poverty, she also had to help out in the family dressmaking business to make ends meet. She later termed her father’s death as the end of her childhood.
She attended Plains High School where she graduated as a valedictorian before attending and graduating from Georgia Southwestern College in 1946.
Mrs. Carter was a friend to her soon to be husband’s sister Ruth. As she admittedly spent a lot of time at the Carters’ house, Jimmy Carter not only came to like her, but they began dating and shortly thereafter, he proposed to her. The two got married in 1946 after Jimmy Carter had graduated from the US Naval Academy and was a US Naval officer.
Her marriage led her to drop plans of furthering her studies which she had planned to undertake at Georgia State College for Women, where she had planned to study interior design. The couple went on to have 4 children.
They lived in public housing while working on their peanut farming business. A disastrous loss made her husband take up agriculture classes while she took up accounting class so that she could be able to manage their books. This helped change their fortunes and they profited from their farming venture.
The couple shared a strong bond which led to her husband, former president Jimmy Carter, to famously say that marrying her was the pinnacle of his life. He was also quoted as saying that Rosalynn was his equal partner in everything that he ever accomplished and that she gave him guidance and encouragement whenever he needed it. He went on to say that as long as Rosalynn was around, he always knew that someone loved and supported him.
One of their cherished traditions was walking half a mile to their friend’s home every Saturday for dinner and a glass of cheap Chardonay.
Political life and advocacy
Her husbands political career is where the steel magnolia reference came from. Mrs. Carter was shy and feminine, but she was also tough as steel and did not allow herself to be relegated to the back burner. She was a present figure in her husband’s political journey, and she supported him from the time he ran and won the Georgia State Senate, the Georgia gubernatorial election in 1970 and finally his run for president where he won the first run but lost reelection.
Throughout her life, she was a noted and feted advocate for women’s rights and mental health. After her husband’s swearing in, she ventured into mental health advocacy and was even appointed to the Governor’s commission to improve services for the mentally and emotionally handicapped. So profound was the work the committee did that they were able to get most of their recommendations to be passed into law.
That was not all, she was also honorary chairperson of the Georgia Special Olympics for the 4 years she was first lady. In addition to that, Mrs. Carter volunteered, as first lady of Georgia, at the Georgia Regional Hospital. So immense were contributions to the issues of mental health as well as women’s rights that she was feted by the National Organization for women and elected to the board of directors of the National Association of Mental Health.
At the White House, her advocacy resonated with the public to the extent that at one time, she was not only more popular than her husband whose popularity was waning, but she tied with Mother Teresa for most admired woman in the world. The Times had also at one point ranked her the second most powerful person in the US after her husband, who was president at that time.
Still at the White House, she did not have any interest in being your average or traditional first lady. This could be seen in the fact that she sat in on cabinet meetings at the invitation of her husband and how she also represented her husband in meetings with various leaders both local and foreign. The former first lady was sent to Central and South America to deliver various human rights messages and she largely succeeded because after her visits, Ecuador agreed to sign and ratify the American convention on human rights. Even more notable, she got the military leader in Peru to agree to give up power, and she later attended the inauguration of a democratically elected president just 4 years later.
It was noted then that she was the kind of person who liked to know what was going on and she would often get briefs from top government officials. It was also noted that she preferred public interest and policy, to hosting events and fashion issues, unlike other first ladies before her. This was evident when she wore the same gown to her husband’s swearing in as Governor and later as President.
She also famously campaigned for her husband alone in 41 states.
Life after the White House
It took Rosalynn Carter a while to come to terms with the loss of her husband’s reelection bid. She maintained in several media interviews that her husband did the right thing and was crucified for it. That he did not deserve to lose the election.
However, they went back to their hometown of Plains, Georgia after the White House and became the only other post World War II presidential couple to do so after Harry and Bess Truman. There, they became involved in the community and were active members of the Maranatha Church. Mrs. Carter was a deacon at the church while her husband taught Sunday School at the same church for many years.
Together with her husband, she contributed to the expansion and global elevation of the non-profit housing organization Habitat for Humanity, where they volunteered for one week yearly to build houses for the less fortunate. In addition to volunteering, the couple also helped fundraise for the organization and helped with advocacy issues.
Mrs. Carter also became the President of the board of directors for Rosalynn Carter Institute for caregiving at her alma mater, Georgia Southwestern State University. She had an autobiography written about her called “First Lady from Plains” and together with her husband, had a memoir called “Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President”.
In 1999, Rosalynn Carter and her husband Jimmy Carter received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from the then President Bill Clinton for their humanitarian acts. The event was more special as it was held at the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia. While giving them the award, President Bill Clinton said “In the past this award has been presented to people who have helped America promote freedom, by fighting for human rights, by righting social wrongs, or empowering others to achieve or extending peace around the world. But rarely do we honor two people who have devoted themselves so effectively to advancing freedom in all those ways. Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter have done more good things for more people in more places than any other couple on the face of the earth.”
He went on to laud their Middle East peace efforts and particularly the Camp David Accord. It was Rosalynn Carter who had suggested the use of Camp David for the talks due to its quiet location. She was often a soundboard for ideas, and for some people, she was an emotional back channel.
In 2001, the former first lady was deservedly inducted in the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
History of firsts
In 2018, after the death of former first lady Barbara Bush, she became the longest living former first lady. However, she was the second longest lived first lady after Bess Truman who died at the age of 97. In October 2019, she became the longest married former first lady. The couple were not done making history because in July 2021, they celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary, becoming the first presidential couple to achieve that feat.
Perhaps the best of them all was the fact that she was the first of all the, “first ladies”, to keep an office in the East Wing of the White House.
Mrs. Carter underwent surgery in April 1977, to remove a malignant breast tumor. In May 2023, she was diagnosed with dementia and just two days before she passed away, she entered hospice care. Her husband has notably been in hospice care and has been on hospice care since February 2023.
The former first lady lived a full and rich life that had an impact on the lives of others. Admirably, she and her husband never sought wealth or fame despite the high positions they occupied in their lives. Retiring to live in their hometown in modest living conditions and choosing to spend their time with each other, with family as well as giving back to society shows what an amazing couple they were.
As the curtain falls on her remarkable life, it is easy to say that it was indeed a life well lived and she was, after all, steel magnolia.