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  • Debra Scala Giokas

Remembering Rosalynn Carter

In 2019 when I was still researching my book, I wrote to former first lady Rosalynn Carter to inquire about her sewing and other needlecrafts. I received a letter from her Special Assistant, along with Mrs. Cater's memoir First Lady From Plains. She also advised me to read the chapter about the Carters in Memories of the Mansion: The Story of Georgia's Governor's Mansion. In that book she discussed how she put away her sewing machine after moving into the Mansion because she did not have as much time as she had anticipated for making clothes.

Courtesy of The Carter Center

I read Mrs. Carter's memoir and marked all the pages that mentioned needlework. As a young navy wife, Rosalynn followed Jimmy to six bases in seven years. She cooked, cleaned, took care of the bills, and learned how to make curtains, crochet and knit. She knitted argyle socks as a for Jimmy while she would wait for him to come home on the weekends.

Rosalynn grew up in a happy home with hardworking parents. Her mother sewed, and her father fixed automobiles and drove a school bus. He also served as town councilman. But Rosalynn’s innocent childhood ended when she was 12, and her father was diagnosed with leukemia. He died a year later in 1940. 

As the eldest of four, this shy teenager proved her grit. Rosalynn took jobs to help pay the bills. She sewed bridal gowns, suits, and dresses with her mother. She also became a hairdresser. Rosalynn said her mother “did what had to be done – she took charge.” She said about herself, “I had to be strong…or appear to be strong.”

She was a steel magnolia.

On January 20th in 1977 on Inauguration Day, Rosalynn Smith Carter walked hand in hand with her husband Jimmy, now the 39th President of the United States. The couple was from Plains, Georgia, and paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue and into the White House. Not since Thomas Jefferson did any president, nevertheless a first lady, walk to the White House. Jimmy, as he liked to be called, was going to be a down-to-earth people’s President. And Rosalynn had already told Americans what she planned to do.

President-Elect and Mrs. Carter and their daughter Amy on Inauguration Day, january 20, 1977, Library of Congress

As the first First Lady to ever make her own campaign promise, Rosalynn Carter would work to change laws to protect the mentally ill. She would pick up where she had left off as First Lady of Georgia.

Rosalynn had never forgotten the first time she met an individual with a developmental disability. And that impression gave her purpose. She wanted to raise awareness that a mental disability should be treated the same as a physical disability. And that it is nothing to be ashamed of. In her new position, Rosalynn couldn’t wait to roll up her long sleeves, get to work, and change the perception of mental illness.

On July 10, 2007 Rosalynn Carter testified before a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee. She asked that mental illness, like physical illness, be covered by insurance. Courtesy of The Carter Center

Rosalynn went to Hollywood and spoke to producers, directors, and television and movies stars to encourage them to use sensitivity and accuracy when portraying people with a mental illness. She promoted public education programs to fight people’s prejudices about the mentally ill. She also formed a commission that fought for insurance companies to cover mental illnesses. She fought for funds for research and prevention, and she encouraged more people to become mental health professionals. All of her efforts increased awareness of the issue of mental illness, and people’s perceptions began to change.

She was born Eleanor Rosalynn Smith on August 18, 1927 in Plain, Georgia. She never used her first name. She was not named after Eleanor Roosevelt, and yet she was her hero. Rosalynn became a champion for mental health awareness, caregivers, senior citizens, and the homeless.

"Do what you can to show you care about other people, and you will make the world a better place," she said.

Thank you Mrs. Carter for all you have done for us. May you rest in peace.




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