Rosalynn Carter’s time as first lady was brief. Like her husband, she is probably more well-known today for the work she did after leaving the White House. Following her death on Sunday, her lasting legacy will be rooted in how she performed the role of presidential spouse and the indelible impact she had on shaping the first lady institution.
The first lady position is unique in US politics. It’s not defined in the Constitution, it’s unpaid, and it’s unelected. Yet presidential spouses since Martha Washington have been expected to take on a variety of roles — from hostess and helpmate to social advocate, political adviser, and presidential surrogate. And their every move is scrutinized by the press and public. With only their predecessors’ performances to guide them, it’s ultimately up to each woman to decide how she’ll approach the role. Rosalynn decided to be a politically active first lady, creating new possibilities for her successors.
Inspired by Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosalynn wanted to be more than an ornamental first lady. She and Jimmy Carter had been partners in all aspects of their life together, including business and politics, and she saw no reason for that to change once they arrived in Washington. She approached the position as a job, which led to the professionalization of the Office of the First Lady. Instead of working out of the residential area of the White House, as was tradition, she set up an office in the East Wing where the rest of the first lady’s staff was located. She held regular office hours (another first) and was known for carrying a briefcase to work. With her encouragement, budgeting for the East Wing was integrated into the White House budget by Congress. She also added positions to help handle the large number of projects she undertook. These changes recognized the significant contributions of first ladies and their staff to the administration.
Years before the Clintons’ “two for one” campaign promise, the Carters were open about their political partnership. Rosalynn spent nearly two years campaigning for her husband, most of it on her own so they could cover more ground. And she didn’t just meet with women’s groups or attend teas. She shook hands with factory workers arriving for early morning shifts and gave speeches to crowds large and small.
In her memoir, “First Lady from Plains,” she recalled showing up at local radio and TV stations without an appointment offering to be interviewed. She even provided them with a list of questions they could ask. This was a brilliant media relations strategy that helped increase her husband’s name recognition. In 1980, she did the bulk of the campaigning since her husband was busy with the Iran Hostage Crisis and was bitterly disappointed when he lost. Now, it’s common for political spouses to campaign independently — a precedent she helped to set.
Because of their hectic schedules, the Carters set up weekly working lunches where they would discuss a variety of issues. They courted controversy when Rosalynn sat in on Cabinet meetings, raising questions about the extent of her influence. But for her, it was simply a way to stay informed and consider how she could help the administration’s efforts. Jimmy openly admitted that Rosalynn was his closest adviser. He even entrusted her to serve as his surrogate on a 12-day tour of Latin American and Caribbean countries where she met with the nations’ male leaders and discussed policy issues. The trip resulted in several diplomatic accomplishments. A 1979 Time magazine article called her the “second most powerful person in the United States.”
In addition to promoting her husband’s agenda, Rosalynn had her own projects. She lobbied for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, advocated for childhood immunization, promoted volunteerism, and brought attention to concerns of elderly Americans and their caregivers. She raised money for Cambodian refugees and helped establish the White House Endowment Trust, which continued Jacqueline Kennedy’s work of restoring and maintaining the White House.
But her most notable advocacy was on behalf of mental health. She was named honorary chair of the President’s Commission on Mental Health and became only the second first lady to testify before Congress, supporting legislation to fund community mental health centers and for mental illness treatment to be covered by insurance. By talking about mental health at a time when it wasn’t openly discussed — and doing so in a way that showed compassion for those dealing with such issues — she helped to destigmatize the subject. Yet she was often frustrated with the lack of media coverage her efforts received, noting in her memoir that journalists told her that mental health wasn’t a “sexy” issue. But she remained a staunch supporter of mental health initiatives throughout her life and was ahead of her time on this issue. Many headlines for stories about her death note her commitment to the cause, something she would likely find gratifying.
In spite of having such a productive tenure, Rosalynn Carter is not often mentioned when discussing influential or popular first ladies. Much of her work has been forgotten and younger generations may not even recognize her name. Nevertheless, her accomplishments helped expand the first lady role and professionalize the position in ways that benefited her successors. She also set the standard for post-White House service, inspiring other former first ladies to continue promoting causes close to their hearts.
Lisa M. Burns is a professor of media studies at Quinnipiac University and a nationally recognized expert on US first ladies.