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Former First Lady Dies aged 96

Universal History Archive via The Times

Rosalynn Carter, the thirty ninth First Lady of the United States and wife of former president Jimmy Carter passed away in Plains, Georgia on 19 November 2023. She was 96 years old.

Born on 27 August 1927, in Plains, Georgia, Elanor Rosalynn Smith, was the eldest of four children of Wilbur and Frances Smith. Her father died when she was aged thirteen due to leukaemia. She would go on to attend Georgia Southwestern University and graduated in 1946. 1946 was a big year for Rosalynn as it was the year she would marry an officer of the US Navy, one James ‘Jimmy’ Earl Carter. They would remain married for seventy seven years. They had four children, three sons and one daughter. 

After Jimmy left the US Navy in 1953, the couple inherited a very small amount of money and invested it into farming, famously peanuts. According to author Peter Bourne, Jimmy Carter was the only president to live in subsidised housing before taking office as the couple lived in public housing once they began farming.

The Carter’s would rise in Georgia, however, as 1963 saw Jimmy elected to state senate. Governor of Georgia in 1971 and running for the White House in the 1976 election. As First Lady of Georgia, Rosalynn devoted herself to mental health initiatives and she served on the Governor’s Commission to Improve Services for the Mentally and Emotionally Handicapped. Many of the Commission’s recommendations would go on to become Georgia State Law.   

When Jimmy announced his run for the Presidency in 1975, Rosalynn individually visited forty one states on his behalf, establishing herself as a strong campaigner and exercising her political skills from her time as First Lady of Georgia. Jimmy would win the 1976 election by 2.1% of the popular. Rosalynn’s campaigning would have been invaluable to such a narrow victory.

As First Lady, Rosalynn Carter, according to historian Burton Kaufman, would not follow the traditional model of passive and purely for the cameras, but instead was active in policy discussions and even sat in on Cabinet meetings at the invitation of the president. She modelled her First Ladyship on that of her predecessor, Betty Ford. As the Carter presidency fell in popularity, Rosalynn was well perceived amongst the public and media. She was dubbed the ‘Steel Magnolia’ due to a soft, feminine exterior with a tough and determined personality. In 1979, she tied with Mother Teresa for the most admired woman in the world.

Eventually losing the 1980 election to Ronald Reagan, Jimmy and Rosalynn perhaps did more in their lives than they had up until that point. Rosalynn founded the Carter Centre, and the couple went on many humanitarian missions across the globe. She also remained a lifelong advocated for mental health initiatives also. The couple have been heavily involved in the activities and ceremonies of their successors to the White House, frequently speaking at Commemorations or State Funerals. 

The couple celebrated their seventy fifth wedding anniversary in 2021, the first presidential couple to do so. Rosalynn was the longest living and longest married first lady in US history.

Her death has seen an outpouring of tributes across the political world. Current President Joe Biden referred to Rosalynn as a “dear friend”, Former president Trump said, “Rosalynn Carter earned the admiration and gratitude of our entire nation” and her husband of seventy seven years, Jimmy Carter, said “Rosalynn was my equal partner in everything I ever accomplished.”  

A life of great significance and accomplishment, Rosalynn Carter will live on in the hearts and memories of millions of Americans for years to come.

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