Politically active Eleanor Rosalynn Carter is the wife of 39th President Jimmy Carter. Serving as the First Lady from 1977 to 1981, she was an envoy abroad and a leading advocate for numerous causes, including mental health research.
“She’s the girl I want to marry,” Jimmy Carter told his mother after his first date with 17-year-old Rosalynn Smith, who had grown up as a friend and neighbor of the Carter family in Plains, Georgia.
Born in Plains on August 18, 1927, Rosalynn was the first of four children in the family of Allethea Murray Smith and Wilburn Edgar Smith. She grew up in a small-town atmosphere that nurtured strong ties to family and dedication to church and community. When she was 13, her father died and her mother became a dressmaker to help support the family. As the oldest child, Rosalynn worked beside her mother, helping with the sewing, the housekeeping, and the other children.
Times were difficult, but Rosalynn completed high school and enrolled in Georgia Southwestern College at Americus. In 1945, after her freshman year, she first dated Jimmy Carter, who was home from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. Their romance progressed, and in 1946 they were married.
The young couple went to Norfolk, Virginia, Ensign Carter’s first duty station after graduation. The Navy kept them on the move. Their sons were born in different places: John William in Virginia, James Earl III in Hawaii, and Donnel Jeffrey in Connecticut. The Carters’ only daughter, Amy Lynn, was born in Georgia in 1967.
When his father died in 1953, Jimmy left the service, and the Carters returned to Plains to run the family business. Managing the accounts of the peanut, fertilizer, and seed enterprise, Rosalynn soon found herself working full-time.
Jimmy entered politics in 1962, winning a seat in the Georgia Senate. Rosalynn, an important member of his campaign team, helped develop support for her husband’s successful bid for the governorship of Georgia in 1970. During his Presidential campaigns, Rosalynn traveled independently throughout the United States. Her belief in her husband’s ability to lead the nation was communicated in a quiet, friendly manner that made her an effective campaigner.
A skillful speaker and a hardworking First Lady, Mrs. Carter managed routine duties and special projects in her office in the East Wing. She attended Cabinet meetings and major briefings, frequently represented the Chief Executive at ceremonial occasions, and served as the President’s personal emissary to Latin American countries.
As First Lady, she focused national attention on the performing arts. She invited to the White House leading classical artists from around the world, as well as traditional American artists. She also took a strong interest in programs to aid mental health, the community, and the elderly. From 1977 to 1978, she served as the Honorary Chairperson of the President’s Commission on Mental Health.
After returning home, Mrs. Carter wrote her autobiography, First Lady From Plains, published in 1984. She is currently vice chair of The Carter Center in Atlanta, founded in 1982 to promote peace and human rights worldwide. At the Center, she leads a program to diminish stigma against mental illness and to promote greater access to mental health care. She also is a partner with the ex-president in projects to resolve conflict, promote human rights, improve global health, and build democracy in some 65 countries.
The biographies of the First Ladies on WhiteHouse.gov are from “The First Ladies of the United States of America,” by Allida Black. Copyright 2009 by the White House Historical Association.
Learn more about Rosalynn Smith Carter’s spouse, Jimmy Carter.