Rosalynn Carter, the former First Lady and half of the longest presidential marriage in U.S. history, passed away at the age of 96. A cornerstone of her husband Jimmy Carter’s presidency, Rosalynn was not only a political force but also a trailblazing advocate for mental health. Diagnosed with dementia in May, her passing was announced after entering hospice in November.
The Carters’ journey from a small town in Georgia to the White House defined an era. Rosalynn played a pivotal role in Jimmy Carter’s political campaigns and presidency, earning her the label of the “second-most powerful person in the United States.” She broke barriers by actively participating in Cabinet meetings and taking on an official role as the Honorary Chairperson of the President’s Commission on Mental Health.
A chance encounter during Jimmy’s gubernatorial campaign in Georgia ignited Rosalynn’s lifelong commitment to mental health. Learning about a woman caring for her mentally ill daughter, Rosalynn confronted Jimmy, asking, “I want to know what you’re going to do about mental health issues.” This moment catalyzed decades of advocacy to destigmatize mental health and improve services globally.
After the White House, the Carters founded The Carter Center, with Rosalynn focusing on mental health through initiatives like the Mental Health Task Force and the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism. Her efforts bore legislative fruit, notably testifying before Congress for the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980 and the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act in 2007.
Despite the progress, Rosalynn recognized the persistent stigma around mental health, stating, “Stigma is the main thing. It hurts people so bad. It embarrasses them. Humiliates them. It leads to discrimination and curtails funding for programs.”
Rosalynn’s dedication extended beyond mental health to advocacy for women’s issues, notably the Equal Rights Amendment. She deemed the ERA’s failure her greatest disappointment. Born in 1927 in Plains, Georgia, Rosalynn’s early life was marked by a commitment to family and community, solidified by the death of her father when she was 13.
Her love story with Jimmy began in their small town, evolving from childhood friends to a whirlwind romance and marriage in 1946. As a Navy wife, Rosalynn supported Jimmy through various posts. Returning to Plains in 1953, she assumed a key role in managing the family’s peanut farm, showcasing her independence.
The Carters had four children, and Rosalynn’s impact continued during Jimmy’s 1962 state Senate run. Their political journey led to the Georgia Governor’s Mansion and, ultimately, the White House. Despite a re-election loss, the Carters crafted a post-presidential legacy admired worldwide.
In her 1987 book, “Everything to Gain,” Rosalynn reflected on life after the White House, emphasizing the need to find new dreams or salvage old ones. Their journey exemplified resilience, from Plains to the governor’s mansion and beyond.
Rosalynn’s passing leaves a void, but her legacy of love, leadership, and mental health advocacy will endure. As she once said, “There is clearly much left to be done, and whatever else we are going to do, we had better get on with it.”