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Rosalynn Eleanor Smith Carter

To fit within the area of presidential wives, I researched information on Rosalynn Carter, wife of 39th President, Jimmy Carter. One of her many books was First Lady from Plains (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984). In it, she described her life from her birth to the end of her husband's presidency.

Rosalynn Eleanor Smith was born on August 18, 1927, in Plains, Georgia, only a few miles from her future husband's home. Growing up in a simple family, she attended and graduated from nearby Georgia Southwestern College. She grew up knowing Jimmy Carter's family but, because she was several years younger, she did not have much contact with him until 1945 when he was home from the Naval Academy. They were married in 1946 and spent the next seven years in the military, with her learning to be a navy bride. In fact, his gift to her upon her acceptance of his proposal of marriage was a manual on the life of the Navy wife. She was such a perfectionist that she found it hard to try new things because of the fear of failure. So, the first years of marriage were difficult for her in trying to please a husband who was also a perfectionist and in making her own way while he was gone so much on submarine maneuvers. They also had three children (all boys) during this time, adding to her difficulty in adjusting.

However, by 1953, she had adjusted and was enjoying taking the children to the beaches in the naval towns where they were stationed. But, that year, her father-in-law died, and her husband was needed on the peanut farm in Georgia to manage the family's warehouses. Uprooted again, she found her new life to be difficult. She had enjoyed leaving the confines of the small town and was uncomfortable living in the shadows of both of their mothers. Her life became much more enjoyable after her husband asked her to begin keeping the books for the warehouses. What started out as part-time became a full-time position and filled the void that she had felt in life. Their mothers were able to take care of the children, freeing her to begin her own career. For nine years, they worked together in the warehouses and became involved in local and then state affairs. They were particularly outspoken on racial issues, something not thought well of in this small Southern community.

One way Jimmy Carter found to make a difference in his community was to run for the state senate. He won the election in 1962 and was reelected in 1964. Mrs. Carter was very active in her husband's campaigns, slowly learning to overcome her trauma of speech-making. By 1966, the Carters found such corruption in the state's government, that Mr. Carter decided to run for governor. Though he lost this race, he had developed a good network in the state and party and began campaigning for the 1970 governor's race which he won. Mrs. Carter described the functions of the governor's house and her adjustment to this new life. She served on the Governor's Commission to Improve Services for the Mentally and Emotionally Handicapped. It was also during this time that the Carters had their fourth child, Amy.

Not long afterward, Mr. Carter decided to run for President of the United States. The odds were very great against him, and the entire family went on the campaign trail to introduce this virtually unknown man to the country. After a very close race, Jimmy Carter became the 39th President with Senator Walter F. Mondale as his Vice President. The next years were very difficult because of Middle Eastern problems. While trying to solve one of the nation's worst fuel shortages, Mr. Carter was also faced with the capture of 50 U.S. hostages by Iranian revolutionaries. These matters overshadowed his peace-keeping policies of reducing nuclear weapons, passing a new Panama Canal treaty, and improving human relations. One of the most important things achieved during his presidency was his active part in creating the framework for the signing of an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1979, which resulted in the Noble Peace Prize being shared by the two signers. Mrs. Carter went into great detail about each of these events, quoting from entries in her diary and first-hand experiences. Much of her book was devoted to explaining behind-the-scenes events that were not covered by the press, including her visits on behalf of her husband to Central America to promote peace.

Though the family assumed Jimmy Carter would be reelected, he was defeated by Ronald Reagan who, though he was not involved in the hostage negotiations, saw the return of the hostages to the United States. Mrs. Carter was bitter toward Iran because of their refusal to release the hostages until after the inauguration of the new President, and she was bitter with the new administration for cutting many of the humanitarian causes for which she worked for four years. She had been very active in providing care for the mentally disadvantaged and for the aged as well as campaigning for women's rights. It was with great difficulty that she packed her belongings on her last day in the White House and moved with her family back to their home in Plains, Georgia.

However, since that time and the writing of this book, she has been instrumental in providing homes for the underprivileged through the founding of Habitat for Humanity. While I was not a supporter of Jimmy Carter in the 1980s, I have gained a great understanding of this couple and life in the White House through reading this book. Mrs. Carter served as an equal partner with her husband, something that had not been done by other First Ladies.

Books by Rosalynn Carter -

Carter, Jimmy, and Rosalynn Carter. Everything to Gain: Making the Most of the Rest of your Life. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1995. First published in 1984.

Carter, Rosalynn. First Lady from Plains. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984

Carter, Rosalynn. Helping Yourself Help Others. New York: Random House, 1995.

Carter, Rosalynn and Derek Davis. Baptists and the White House. Nashville: Historical Commission, 1997.
(Forward  to) Triumph over Fear: A Book of Help and Hope for People with Anxiety, Panic Attacks, and Phobias by Jerilyn Ross

Much information and personal papers are included in the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library - Atlanta, Georgia

Biographies -

Maddox, Linda, and Edna Langford. Rosalynn: Friend and First Lady. Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1980.

Norton, Howard. Rosalynn: A Portrait. Plainfield, NJ: Logos International, 1977.

Chapman, Sara S. and Helen Desfosses. [Rosalyn Carter]: A Tribute to Children. Albany NY: Sage Colleges, 1994. - sound recording

Web sites -


http://womenshistory.about.com/gi/dynamic/offsite.htm?site=http%3A%2F%2Fclinton4.nara.gov%2FWH%2Fglimpse%2Ffirstladies%2Fhtml%2Frc39.html - Biography

http://womenshistory.about.com/cs/1stladycarter/- includes bibliography, biography, portrait, and current events in the life of Rosalynn Carter as taken from www.firstladies.org, American Memory by the Library of Congress, and other web sites.

Presidential First Ladies