America’s First Ladies, #39 – Rosalynn Smith Carter

America’s First Ladies, #39 - Rosalynn Smith Carter

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Our thirty-ninth First Lady, Rosalynn Carter, was born Eleanor Rosalynn Smith on August 18, 1927, in Plains, Georgia. She was the eldest child of four children born to Wilburn Smith and Allethea “Allie” Murray. Her father was an auto mechanic and farmer, and her mother was a dressmaker. Her younger siblings included two brothers and a sister. Rosalynn went by her middle name from a young age, and that middle name was bestowed on her in honor of her maternal grandmother, Rosa.

Her family was impoverished when Rosalynn was young, though she always said she and her brothers and sister were not aware of it, because no one else they knew had any money, either. That meant, as far as she and her siblings were concerned, her family was well off, or at least no worse off than anyone else in their community or family.

Her town’s community life centered around church and school, where most everyone gathered on a regular basis, so everyone in the town knew each other. She grew up playing with boys, as there were no girls her age on her street, and thus was a bit of a tomboy. Her childhood hobbies included drawing buildings and looking at pictures of airplanes, and she thought she might like to be an architect someday.

However, life had other plans for her, as it often does with people, and her childhood, in her own words, came to an end when she was thirteen, and her father died of leukemia. Being the oldest child in the family, Rosalynn had to take responsibility for helping her mother to raise the younger children after her father was gone and also had to assist her in the dressmaking business, to bring more money into the household. Rosalynn always said her mother encouraged her to be independent and to do what she had to do to make her dreams come true, as well as to get by.

Because her father always dreamed of seeing Rosalynn go to college, Rosalynn worked hard at high school. She graduated as class salutatorian and enrolled at Georgia Southwest College. However, she had to drop out later because the funds for her to continue her studies were not there, and she was still expected to help care for and financially support her mother and siblings.

Rosalynn began dating Jimmy Carter in 1945 when he was a student at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, and she got a crush on him after seeing a picture of him in uniform; their families already knew each other, which is how she had access to the picture. Rosalynn allowed Jimmy to kiss her on their first date, which was the first time she had ever allowed this to any other date. By February of the next year, Jimmy had proposed, and Rosalynn had accepted.

They kept the upcoming marriage a secret because Rosalynn didn’t want to tell her mother she had chosen to get married rather than continue her studies. Before meeting Jimmy, Rosalynn had planned to study interior design at Georgia State College for Women, but getting married canceled those plans, as women did not continue going to school after getting married in those times. She and Jimmy married on July 7, 1946.

After marrying, Rosalynn and Jimmy had three sons and a daughter. The first three children, which were the sons, were all born while Jimmy was stationed elsewhere with military duties, and Rosalynn enjoyed the independence his postings gave her to raise their children alone, as she saw fit. She even opposed him resigning from the Navy and coming home to Georgia when his father was dying, and refused to speak to him for some time afterward, communicating with him through their children. Eventually, she reconciled with him, and they became a loving, close couple.

With Jimmy home, Rosalynn helped him with the family peanut farm business and warehouse business, and, with three sons, wanted another child, but could not have one because of a large benign tumor on her uterus. She had the tumor removed twelve years later, and gave birth to her only daughter, Amy.

Jimmy began a political career in 1962 with an election to the Georgia State Senate, and politics was a part of Rosalynn’s life from that point onward. When he eventually became President, she declared she had no intention of being a traditional First Lady. She was active in Jimmy’s social, personal, and political life, sitting in on his cabinet meetings so she could remain fully informed on current political events. She wrote notes at these meetings but did not speak, as she was there just to become informed. It was her desire to be able to speak intelligently and accurately on political matters when she traveled the country and the world and was questioned by the press on these things.

She joined former First Ladies Ladybird Johnson and Betty Ford in publicly supporting the Equal Rights Amendment. While she did entertain at the White House, she never considered it her primary job as First Lady. While outsiders saw her as demanding, she saw herself as being a full participant in her husband’s administration and was pleased that the public viewed her as a demanding First Lady. She was criticized for not being as feminine or soft-spoken as her predecessors, another thing she took as a compliment.

Rosalynn was the 1st First Lady to have her own office in the East Wing of the White House. She also had her own staff director for the East Wing, which was a newly created position at the White House.

Despite public criticism of her performance as First Lady, including how she paid little to no attention to fashion, she maintained high public approval ratings even when Jimmy’s were falling. At one point during Jimmy’s presidency, she was tied with Mother Teresa as the most admired woman in the world. It was also said of her that she was the most politically active First Lady since Eleanor Roosevelt.

Rosalynn continued to be active in politics and social causes after leaving the White House and continues to be active today, helping her husband Jimmy with his much-publicized volunteer work for Habitat for Humanity.

Upon the death of former First Lady Barbara Bush in April of 2018, Rosalynn Carter became the oldest living former First Lady.