Perhaps one of America's most favorite First Ladies, Rosalynn Carter was a quiet activist during her husband's term. She was more than just the wife of 39th President James Earl Credit: firstladies.org; public domain("Jimmy") Carter, Jr.. She was his peer in political decision-making, she was his closest adviser, and (like her early 20th century predecessor Edith Wilson, wife of Woodrow Wilson) she sat in on Cabinet and policy meetings. Rosalynn Carter also served abroad as an envoy for the US. Since then she has become a crusader for mental health issues and the homeless.
Rosalynn Carter also holds the dubious distinction as the only First Lady to unwittingly meet and shake hands with one of this country's worst serial killers.
Eleanor Rosalynn Smith was born on August 18, 1927, in Plains, Georgia. She was the oldest of four children in the Smith family. Her father Wilburn was an auto mechanic who died of leukemia when Rosalynn was 13. He Credit: jimmycarterlibrary.govwas in his early 40s, and this left her mother Allie, a dressmaker, in a financial Credit: ibiblio.orgjam (hot off the heels of the Great Depression but before the economic boost of World War II). Soon enough young Rosalynn was helping Allie with her dressmaking work to help out the family. She also worked at a local hairdresser's as well as helping her mother raise the other children.
Despite Rosalynn's home duties and outside dressmaking work, she excelled in school and graduated from Plains High School as the class valedictorian. She went on to attend Georgia Southwestern College (in Americus, Georgia) from 1944 to 1946.
Rosalynn Meets a Really Good Guy
The teenage Rosalynn Smith was an adorable flower of femininity, with auburn hair and hazel eyes. She was very photogenic and her early pictures show a pretty teen girl on the cusp of Credit: photo by Jimmy Carterwomanhood.
She had her share of interested beaus. However, there was one man a few years her senior that she found more charming than the others that swarmed around her. Rosalynn's family knew the Carter family, and one of their sons, Jimmy Carter, was attending the US Naval Academy in Annapolis when Rosalynn first consented to go on a date with him in 1945 [Carter graduated Annapolis with a BS degree, 59th out of a class of 820]. The teenage Rosalynn was impressed by the dapper Navy man, with his "aw shucks" Southern attitude that belied a brilliant intellect.
For Jimmy's part he was completely head over heels for Rosalynn Smith. He had told his mother presciently, "She's the girl I want to marry," after his first date with the 17-year-old. Jimmy was a bit pushy, however, and Rosalynn rebuffed his first marriage proposal in December 1945, saying it was too soon in their dating. She had turned 18 but a few months before. Jimmy tried again a couple of months later; this time she said, "Yes". They married in Plains, Georgia, on July 7, 1946, a month shy of her 19th birthday.
The Carter Family
Soon there were children in the household. The first, John William ("Jack") Carter, was born a little over a year after they married. Two more boys arrived at irregular intervals in 1950 and 1952.
Through 1953, Jimmy's Navy assignments kept the family moving, and all the children but Amy were born outside of Georgia. Jimmy's father died in July 1953; although he had planned to make the military his career, he and Rosalynn decided instead to go back to Georgia and take over the family business. He resigned his commission as a lieutenant in October 1953. The Carter family peanut farm (ultimately a multimillion-dollar business) was in its fledgling stages of growth, and under Jimmy's care it blossomed. Rosalynn helped run the farm and warehouse business, and she also handled accounting duties for the concern.
Politics entered Jimmy's life, and he was elected to the Georgia State Senate in 1961. Rosalynn was a great campaign help – she was well liked, mannered, and learned the political ropes along with her husband. He was re-elected and served until 1966 when he began thinking about running for the US House of Representatives. His Republican opponent suddenly dropped out of the congressional competition and decided to run for Georgia governor instead. Jimmy did not want to see a Republican heading up his state. With Rosalynn's blessing and encouragement, he switched his run to a governor's race.
He lost the primary but made a good enough showing that he was able to focus on another bid. Perhaps a huge surprise during this transitional time for the forty-year-old Rosalynn Carter was baby Amy, born in 1967. Jimmy's second bid for governor was more successful. With Rosalynn's help on the campaign trail he was elected to the Georgia governor's office in 1970.
As the First Lady of Georgia, Rosalynn immediately decided to use her position for humanitarian causes. She embraced issues involving the mental health industry in her state. She was appointed to the Governor's Commission to Improve Services for the Mentally and Emotionally Handicapped, and many of this commission's findings and recommendations were approved and written into Georgia state law. She served as a volunteer at the Georgia Regional Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, and for four years was honorary chairperson for the Georgia Special Olympics.
Jimmy's gubernatorial term came to an end in January 1975. He had already made it abundantly clear he would run for President in 1976. Rosalynn hit the campaign trail on his behalf, and she would eventually travel to 41 states, alone, rallying support for the Georgia peanut farmer (who was a millionaire by then).
Because of her public works on behalf of mental health care in Georgia, Rosalynn got her own time in the spotlight even as she campaigned for her husband. She was elected to the board of directors of the National Association of Mental Health. The National Organization for Women (NOW) also honored her with an Award of Merit for her vigorous support for the Equal Rights Amendment. She also received the Volunteer of the Year Award from the Southwestern Association of Volunteer Services. Stumping for Jimmy suited her, and she was a major asset to his campaign. Her efforts paid off, and he was elected in 1976 to the Highest Office in the Land.
Belle of the Ball
In January 1977, Rosalynn and her husband walked hand-in-hand down Pennsylvania Avenue during his inauguration parade. In a nod toward the country's lean economic times, RosalynnCredit: Library of Congress wore the same formal gown for Jimmy's presidential inaugural balls that she had worn six years earlier at similar balls in Atlanta, Georgia, when Jimmy became Governor. This is a concession that not many women in her position would have made (most notably her successor, Nancy Reagan). The public loved her for this small gesture.
Rosalynn installed herself in the East Wing of the White House as her base of operations. This wing traditionally had been used for the staff organizing social functions and less important things of that nature. Rosalynn Carter as First Lady made it a place of business.
Rosalynn was aggressively involved in her husband's administration with his full support and consent. She attended staff meetings, Cabinet meetings, and stressed the importance of his works publicly. She also acted on his behalf in meetings with foreign dignitaries and domestic leaders, in addition to acting as an ambassador, most notably on a trek to Latin America in 1977.
Rosalynn Carter led a delegation to Thailand in 1979 to discuss the problems of Cambodian and Laotian refugees. She was particularly concerned about the welfare of refugee children in that chaotic country. When the White House launched its Friendship Force International cultural exchange program in March 1977 Rosalynn was made honorary chairperson (a post she held until 2002).
Rosalynn continued her crusade for better mental health care in Washington. She served as an active honorary chair of the President's Commission on Mental Health. In 1980, pending legislation about a proposed Mental Health System Bill she testified before a Senate committee about her experience with mental health concerns. She was only the second First Lady to ever appear before Congress (the first was Eleanor Roosevelt). She also fought hard to help keep interest alive for the Equal Rights Amendment.Credit: public domain
Despite her extracurricular activities Rosalynn still managed to make time for the many social necessities of her office. She spent time with her daughter Amy, and her two youngest sons and their families also lived in the White House during the Carter Administration. To add to her manic agenda, she was a frequent (and highly sought) guest on many television and radio talk shows.
Rosalynn Meets a VeryBad Man
Public relations were of course important for the incumbent. Rosalynn's humanitarian works kept her on the road often. On May 6, 1978, she was in Chicago, doing a meet-and-greet with some Illinois businessmen. The occasion was Chicago's annual Polish Constitution Day Parade (the city has a huge Polish and Polish-American population).
This was a standard social affair, one of many civic events in which she engaged regularly.
Photos were taken of Rosalynn and the various local VIPs, and she would autograph them. Unfortunately, for the unsuspecting Rosalynn Carter, she was about to be immortalized in the presence of one of the most despicable human beings ever to walk the planet, homosexual serial killer John Wayne Gacy.
Gacy was active in Illinois Democratic politics. He had also been the supervisor of the parade that day (and had held that position from 1975). He was a Democratic Party precinct captain as well, and those small connections got him some face time with Rosalynn Carter, on hand for the parade. She posed smilingly for a picture with Gacy and an acquaintance of his, and then she posed for a shot with just Gacy, shaking his hand in the photo. In the picture, Gacy wears a lapel pin indicating he had been cleared by the US Secret Service to approach the First Lady. The pictures were taken by a White House photographer, and are part of the public domain. She signed one of the photos to Gacy (although she had never met him before that moment): "To John Gacy. Best Wishes. Rosalynn Carter".
By December 20, 1978, about 7 months after his brush with Rosalynn, John Wayne Gacy was national headlines. Police had questioned him closely about the disappearance of a 15-year-old boy on December 13, 1978. While in Gacy's home, police noted a bad smell coming from the home's crawl space. Quick investigation led to the discovery of dozens of bodies under the house. Gacy was later tried and convicted of killing 33 males (mostly teens) after homosexually raping and torturing them. [It is believed he was actually responsible for more than the 33 canonical deaths attributed to him.]. He was executed in Illinois by lethal injection on May 9, 1994.
In the wake of Gacy's 1978 arrest, the infamous photo of her shaking hands with one of America's worst serial killers in history became an obvious source of embarrassment. Rosalynn was horrified for more than one reason: she certainly didn't want to embarrass her husband's administration, but beyond that she had actually touched this filthy person. The Secret Service took their share of the blame for having cleared Gacy to meet Rosalynn (they, of course, could not know he had dead boys buried under his house).
[The Gacy photo-op with Rosalynn Carter still surfaces from time to time, usually as a bludgeon by conservatives and the ignorant: "Gacy was a Democrat" (implying, therefore, all Democrats are serial killers and homosexual rapists). One completely ridiculous editorial describes Gacy as a "mass murderer" and uses the term throughout an op-ed piece that denounces Democrats. Gacy was not a "mass murderer". He was a serial killer, and there is a difference.]
Raving over Rosalynn
Recession issues, energy concerns, and the idiocy of the Iran Hostage Crisis plagued Jimmy Carter's administration. He was made to look ineffectual on the foreign relations' front as he was helpless to recover the US citizens held captive in Iran. Although he ran for re-election, he lost to the perceived "stronger" Ronald Reagan.
After vacating the White House in 1981, neither Jimmy nor Rosalynn Carter rested on their laurels. In 1982, she co-founded The Carter Center. This is a private, not-for-profit institution based in Atlanta, Georgia, which focuses on human rights advancement. This same organization has a mental health agenda as well, and Rosalynn created and serves as the chair of The Carter Center Mental Health Task Force. This is a think tank that advocates positive change in the mental health field. She hosts the annual Rosalynn Carter Symposium on Mental Health Policy, and this annual gathering brings mental health care leaders from all over to discuss issues.
In 1984, she was named an Honorary Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association. She serves as a board member emeritus of the National Mental Health Association. The Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism gives journalists financial incentives to seek out and report publicly on topics of mental health or mental illness. These one-year fellowships promote public awareness of mental health issues, and try to erase the public's general negative attitude about mental illness.
In 2007, Rosalynn co-sponsored an action pushing Congress to pass legislation about mental health insurance. She and her co-sponsor are also working an act that requires equal coverage of mental and physical illnesses when policies include both types of coverage. Rosalynn once again testified before a House subcommittee on this matter in July 2007, and legislation requiring parity in health insurance for treating mental illnesses was signed into law in October 2008.
Rosalynn Carter is also the president of the board of directors for the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving. This organization was established in 1987 to focus on family and professional caregivers for those living with chronic illness and disabilities.
In an interesting exercise in sociology and politics, Rosalynn sponsored a symposium on the topic of "Women and the Constitution" in 1988. The discussions centered on how the US Constitution affects women and women's issues. This conference drew an astounding 150 speakers; 1,500 attendees from all 50 states and 10 foreign countries were on hand.
Since 1991 she has been active in child immunization drives and in addressing poverty issues in Atlanta. She is on the board of Habitat for Humanity. Rosalynn Carter has written and co-written five books to date, from her autobiography (in 1984) up to a study of mental health (written in 2010).
In 1999, she and former President Jimmy Carter both were awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. She has been given awards for a broad spectrum of causes. A truly proud moment for her as an honoree was on October 5, 2002, when she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame. She is only the third First Lady to receive this honor (Abigail Adams and the omnipresent Eleanor Roosevelt are the other two First Ladies so noted).
And from 1988 to 2009, she garnered a further seven nationally recognized awards, including being named Georgia Woman of the Year (1996) and receiving a Surgeon General's Medallion in 2000, and co-honoree of the American Peace Award (with her husband Jimmy) in 2009.
Rosalynn Carter has received honorary degrees from seven different and prestigious institutions (from 1979 to 2002). Rosalynn served as distinguished centennial lecturer at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, from 1988 to 1992. She has been a Distinguished Fellow at the Emory University Department of Women's Studies in Atlanta since 1990.
In all likelihood, Rosalynn Carter's vigorous and public advocacy for human rights has perhaps made her the most honored First Lady in history with multiple awards from both civic and government bodies.
It is interesting to note what a spectacular contribution this amazing and multifaceted woman has made despite her one-term in the White house. It is likely, however, that her pioneering activism and partnering with her husband in the White House helped clear a path for the politically active and aggressive (and highly visible) First Ladies Hillary Rodham Clinton and Michelle Obama. These latter activist women probably owe a debt to the genteel Southern woman from Georgia, perhaps one of our more overlooked First Ladies, Eleanor Rosalynn Smith Carter.
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