Commentary

Remembering Rosalynn Carter and the challenges she overcame as first lady

November 27, 2023 5:30 am

Rosalynn Carter and her husband, former President Jimmy Carter, talk before the start of a 2010 baseball game between the Atlanta Braves and the San Francisco Giants. (Getty Images)

As I write this, the airwaves, online news sites and print media are filled with tributes to Rosalynn Carter, the former first lady who passed away Sunday at the age of 96. It is likely that many are learning of her groundbreaking years as first lady and her post-presidential work — beyond building houses for Habitat for Humanity — for the first time.

While first ladies have been the subject of news stories since Martha Washington made impromptu remarks thanking the troops who accompanied her from Mount Vernon to New York and the crowds that greeted her along the way, many of their projects and historic firsts were not well covered during their times and are often lost to history. History is written by those who are in power, and traditionally those have been white men.

For the past 30 years, I have studied, taught about and lectured on first ladies. The question I hear from audiences of all ages is “Why didn’t we learn this before?”

Rosalynn Carter’s passing has given us an opportunity to see the power of the position and the dedication to public service of a woman who fulfilled an unpaid role that has no constitutional basis and no rulebook. Each presidential wife has defined the role in her own way, and Michelle Obama noted in her tribute that Rosalynn reminded her “to make the role my own, just like she did.”

With all that Rosalynn Carter accomplished, it was not an easy path. She, and other first ladies, face obstacles from the public, the media, presidential staff members, and the president himself.

To fully appreciate what Rosalynn Carter was able to do, I want to share a few pieces of background.

As noted in tributes, she was the first to have an East Wing office next to her staff rather than one in a dressing room or extra space in the residence. In 1978, the White House Personnel Authorization Act officially named the Office of First Lady and authorized a government-paid staff for the spouse. This came at a time when first ladies were receiving more media coverage and scrutiny, and public expectations of their visibility causes intensified.

Rosalynn faced a challenge in meeting the demands because her husband campaigned on cutting the size of White House staff. She wrote in her memoir, First Lady from Plains, that she and the president had “painful disagreements” over her staffing needs. However, she prevailed.

Mental health advocacy defined 50 years of Rosalynn Carter’s life, and she served as honorary chair of the President’s Commission on Mental Health. The original plan was for her to serve as the official chair, but legal opinions determined that a president could not name a relative to a civilian position, even as a volunteer.

Mental health advocacy defined 50 years of Rosalynn Carter’s life, and she served as honorary chair of the President’s Commission on Mental Health. The original plan was for her to serve as the official chair, but legal opinions determined that a president could not name a relative to a civilian position, even as a volunteer. She reluctantly accepted the “honorary” title even though she thought it did not reflect the seriousness of the role and conjured up images of photo ops without substance.

The title notwithstanding, she became the second first lady after Eleanor Roosevelt to testify before a congressional committee asking for expansion of federal spending for mental health programs, and she conducted hearings across the country resulting in reports in 1977, 1978 and 1979. The commission’s work was visionary and brought a highly stigmatized subject into the open. However, when the commission was announced at a news conference, Rosalynn reflected in her memoir that there were questions about her decision to serve only wine and no hard liquor at White House events, rather than the commission’s work.

She learned that you have to create your own narrative, and when her first report was issued, she appeared on Good Morning America to start the day and ended with the evening MacNeil-Lehrer Report.

Her historic seven-country Latin American trip representing the administration on a variety of substantive issues was criticized and questioned by the press, members of Congress and foreign leaders. Again, she was undeterred and used the Spanish she studied in preparation, reporting back to Congress on the complaints she heard about U.S. foreign policy.

She was not the first first lady to sit in on a cabinet meeting — Julia Grant is known to have, and there may have been others when the president’s office was in the family quarters — but she was public about it and her weekly working lunches with the president. She was criticized in the press, but the Carters’ partnership began with his Navy years and it wasn’t going to change.

As a result of their working relationship, President Carter wanted her to understand the issues. It paid off when he held the historic Camp David meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Rosalynn took notes and produced 200 pages describing the summit which provides a thorough and frank account of the meeting for history.

Among her regrets, however, was a failure to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, which had also been supported by her predecessors Pat Nixon and Betty Ford. She was devastated by her husband’s loss to Ronald Reagan in 1980, but she worked past it. Together, the Carters demonstrated the influence former presidential couples can have.

Rosalynn Carter is being praised for helping to create the modern first lady’s role, and that praise is well-deserved. Just as women in the 1970s were breaking barriers, she brought into the open the private political influence that has existed since the Washingtons, and she weathered the challenges to show that a first lady can make a difference with issues of her own.

This commentary is republished from Kansas Reflector, a sister publication of Kentucky Lantern, and part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. 

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Diana B. Carlin
Diana B. Carlin

Diana B. Carlin is professor emerita of communication at Saint Louis University. She taught a speechwriting course at the University of Kansas and a course on presidential speechwriters for KU’s Osher Institute. She has also taught courses on women and politics at the University of Kansas and is co-author of "Gender and the American Presidency: Nine Presidential Women and the Barriers They Faced," and book chapters on Martha Washington, Lady Bird Johnson, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama.

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