There have been only two First Ladies of the United States from Georgia and only one of them was also First Lady of Georgia and that is Eleanor Rosalynn Carter. How fitting her first name is Eleanor as in my opinion she, along with Eleanor Roosevelt were two of the most influential First Ladies of the past one hundred years.
Born Eleanor Rosalynn Smith on August 18, 1927 to modest means, in Plains, GA just like her husband, the 39th President of the United States, Jimmy Carter.
Some may think the photo I have submitted with this essay to be an unusual choice but I believe it exemplifies the very essence of Rosalynn, someone who was unafraid to get her hands dirty to accomplish her goals. Paving the way for a new breed of First Ladies like Hillary Rodham Clinton, she was politically active during her husband’s presidency, sitting in on Cabinet and policy meetings as well as serving as her husband’s closest adviser. She also served as an envoy to Latin America and led a public discussion on mental health.
After marrying her husband in 1946, the Carter’s lived the Navy life, stationed in nearly every corner of the United States from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii to Provincetown, Massachusetts. Upon the death of Jimmy’s father in 1953 and with their young family in tow they returned to Plains to assume the management of the family peanut farm.
After a few unsuccessful runs for public office, her husband, Jimmy Carter was elected governor of Georgia in 1970 and Rosalynn found her voice on what would become her lifelong cause of bringing mental illness out of the shadows and placed within the broader realm of the general health care system where it belonged. As a member of the Governor’s Commission to improve services to the mentally ill she worked tirelessly to overhaul the state’s antiquated mental health system and oversaw reforms that provided state services to the mentally handicapped.
Playing an active role in her husband’s presidential campaign in 1976, she continued her role as a trail blazer to future First ladies by publicly disclosing the fact that the President consulted her on domestic and foreign affairs. Of course, other First Ladies had their husband’s ear on such matters but none would have had the political courage to admit it. “Times, they were a’changing” and Rosalynn took full advantage of it. Rosalynn Carter was the first First Lady to have her office in the East Wing, giving her daily access to Cabinet members, including the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare. This access enabled her to continue her work on mental health, serving as Honorary Chair of the President’s Commission on Mental Health in 1977. Rosalynn oversaw an advisory board of commissioners composed of social workers, medical experts, lobbyists and psychiatrists who toured the nation, educating doctors, legislators and the general public on this issue culminating in the federal implementation of the most sweeping reform of mental health legislation in a generation, the Mental Health Systems Act of 1979.
Although her advocacy for the mentally ill is what we most remember, she was also a strong leader on issues of the elderly, promoted volunteerism and had an active role as an ambassador most notably in Central and South America, many times giving speeches in Spanish. She was also an active, behind the scenes player in the historic Camp David accords peace talks negotiated by the President between Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
Her advocacy, like her husbands did not end with their tenure in the White House, in fact some would say it was just beginning. To this day, as the Carters enter their 90th decade they remain active in their lifelong devotion to the world’s poor and disadvantaged. The Carter Center located in Atlanta, Georgia, was founded by Mr. and Mrs. Carter in 1982, where Rosalynn served as vice chair of the board of trustees until 2005.
She is a leading opponent of the death penalty, an advocate for early childhood immunization, human rights, and conflict resolution. This in and of itself would have been considered a monumental accomplishment, a life well lived, but add to this Rosalynn’s devotion to Habitat for Humanity where she and her husband, to this day take up hammers and saws to build homes for the homeless, pen books, and serve their hometown church, Plains Baptist church. I would challenge anyone to find a more consequential First Lady and we in Georgia are proud to call her one of our own. — Melissa Teague, 2016