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RIP Rosalynn Carter, the Steel Magnolia

President Jimmy Carter and first lady Rosalynn Carter dance in the grand foyer of the White House in Washington, DC, on Jan. 31, 1979.

President Jimmy Carter and first lady Rosalynn Carter dance in the grand foyer of the White House in Washington, DC, on Jan. 31, 1979.

Media Punch/INSTARimages via Reuters

Rosalynn Carter, humanitarian, political crusader, former first lady, and a leading advocate for people with mental health conditions and family caregivers, passed away on Sunday at the age of 96.


Born Eleanor Rosalynn Smith in Georgia in 1927, Rosalynn was delivered by her neighbor, nurse Lillian Carter, who brought her son Jimmy, then age three, to meet the baby. As a young woman, Rosalynn was close friends with one of Jimmy’s sisters, who set her up on a date with her brother. The pair were married in 1946 and had four children. For 77 years, Rosalynn and Jimmy were a formidable team, both in politics and as renowned humanitarians. Of his late wife, Jimmy Carter said “Rosalynn is my best friend ... the perfect extension of me, probably the most influential person in my life.”

Rosalynn Carter’s father died when she was 13, leaving her to help raise her siblings and marking her with a deep appreciation for the role of caregivers in society. Her passion for mental health was sparked in 1966 when, at a campaign stop, she met a woman who told her of the struggle she faced caring for her mentally ill daughter. After Jimmy Carter won the presidency in 1976, Rosalynn Carter used her position to advocate for both causes and was appointed honorary chairperson of the President's Commission on Mental Health.

Rosalynn Carter broke the mold of the traditional first lady. She eschewed concerns for fashion and decorating and set up her own office in the East Wing of the White House. She acted as a key advisor to her husband, gave policy advice, went on diplomatic missions, and even occasionally sat in on Cabinet meetings. Such was her influence that aides to President Carter sometimes privately referred to her as "co-president." In Washington, she became known as the “Steel Magnolia" for her outward shyness and inner strength.

Following Jimmy Carter's departure from the White House in 1981, Rosalynn and her husband founded The Carter Center, a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing human rights, promoting democracy, monitoring elections, advancing the rights of women and girls, and curing illness, including Guinea worm disease and malaria. The former first lady also established the eponymous Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers in 1987, which supported caregivers and improved the quality of care for individuals with chronic illnesses and disabilities.

A devout Baptist, Carter was known for her grace, compassion, and determination. “There are only four kinds of people in this world,” she said. “Those who have been caregivers, those who are currently caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who will need caregivers.” Rosalynn herself passed through all these stages, living with dementia in the later years of her life.

There will be events to commemorate her life beginning Nov. 27, with a wreath-laying at Georgia Southwestern State University. The Carter family then invites members of the public to pay their respects from 6-10 pm as Rosalynn Carter lies in repose at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum. On Nov. 29, funeral services for family and friends will be held at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia, where the Carters worshipped for decades. The public is welcome to line the family motorcade route as it proceeds from the church to the Carter home, where Rosalynn Carter will be buried in the family plot.

The Carter Center has launched a portal for the public to reflect on her legacy of caring and perseverance.

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