Rosalynn Carter, who has died aged 96, arrived in the White House in January 1977 determined to recast the role of US first lady. From the foundation of the US, each president’s spouse has had to work out how to be at the centre of national attention while avoiding actions or comments affecting the president’s political interests. Many, like Pat Nixon, simply retreated into the background; Eleanor Roosevelt spent 12 years robustly carving out a totally separate career; Edith Wilson, sticking to her domestic role during Woodrow Wilson’s first term, then went into history as the “secret president” by continuing to run the administration after the president’s disabling stroke in 1919.
Rosalynn Carter, having played a significant part in her husband Jimmy’s political career, from his election to the Georgia senate in 1962 to his presidential victory in 1976, arrived in Washington with the comment that “it would be a shame not to take advantage of that power”. Her first move was to organise an Office of the First Lady in the east wing of the White House, with a chief of staff whose rank and salary parallelled that of other White House functionaries. The new department built up a staff of 18 and spent the next four years coping with the avalanche of social and political invitations that Mrs Carter attracted.
However, she soon ran into the inescapable problems posed by the clannish social environment of the American capital. In the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, Jimmy Carter had run for the presidency as an outsider, a clean-cut southerner untainted by Washington’s shabby moral compromises. To symbolise this change, Rosalynn attended her husband’s swearing-in ceremony in a six-year-old dress and afterwards opted for a packed lunch instead of an inaugural ball.
The unamused Washington establishment soon hit back. When Jimmy Carter mused about a running a “co-presidency” and seemed intent on giving his wife a job in his administration, a chorus of lawyers pointed out that he was risking impeachment: US law specifically bars presidential spouses from such positions. So Rosalynn’s consolation was to became a regular attender at cabinet meetings, a move which raised some eyebrows but which lay within the president’s discretion. It soon emerged that her contributions to the discussions had earned her the title among the White House staff of the “steel magnolia”.
Rather more important troubles arose when Rosalynn, acting as the president’s personal envoy, embarked on an extensive diplomatic tour of Latin America in 1977. She prepared meticulously for her solo trip, studying extensive State Department briefings on each country and embarking on an intensive Spanish language course. As she progressed through Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela, she held lengthy discussions with their leaders about human rights, arms reductions, nuclear power, American aid, and drug trafficking.
This excursion caused such a huge row in Congress and within the bureaucracy that she never undertook another. There was no evidence that she had put a foot wrong during her talks but it was equally true that she had no constitutional authority to represent her nation abroad.
From then on she had to operate behind the scenes, particularly in the campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment. Drafted by Congress in 1972 to outlaw all discrimination against women, this amendment needed ratification by 38 state legislatures to become law. In spite of huge pressure from Rosalynn Carter and her supporters, the state votes never materialised and the measure died.
It was a hard blow for a woman whose personal qualities had brought her to the White House from an impoverished southern rural childhood through the worst years of the depression. She was born in Plains, Georgia, daughter of Allie (nee Murray) and Wilburn Smith. Her father, a car mechanic, died when she was 13, obliging her mother to support their four children through dressmaking. Rosalynn, the eldest, not only helped in that work but looked after her siblings and did much of the housekeeping. She was a bright child who did well at Plains high school and went on to study at Georgia Southwestern College.
At the age of 18 she met Jimmy Carter, a young officer on leave from the US Naval Academy. Within a year, in 1946 they were married and she embarked on the peripatetic life of a military wife. When her husband had to resign from the navy in 1953 to take over his father’s agricultural business, Rosalynn took an accountancy course so she could run that side of the enterprise.
In the 1960s, by now with a growing family, she extended her activities into politics to help her husband’s election first to the Georgia legislature and then in 1970 to the state governorship. She admitted years later that she was initially terrified at the idea of making speeches but she turned out to have a natural gift.
When Carter embarked on his presidential bid in 1975, Rosalynn criss-crossed the US to run a separate and extremely effective campaign on his behalf. In her later time in the White House and in the years that followed Carter’s 1980 defeat by Ronald Reagan, she became a campaigner for mental health projects and for the proper care of elderly people. She and her husband also threw themselves into the Carter Center’s projects to improve human rights around the world and to advance global health.
She is survived by her husband and their three sons, Jack, Chip and Jeff, and daughter, Amy, 11 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.
Eleanor Rosalynn Smith Carter, US first lady, born 18 August 1927, died 19 November 2023
First appeared on www.theguardian.com