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Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter dies at age 96: Remembering her legacy

Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter listens to a speaker at The Carter Center in Atlanta. (Jason Bronis/AP)
Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter listens to a speaker at The Carter Center in Atlanta. (Jason Bronis/AP)

Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter has been receiving an outpouring of accolades following her death Sunday. She was an early and tireless advocate for mental health care, and she advocated on behalf of caregivers.

She co-founded the Carter Center. She was a global humanitarian, and in the U-S, she helped build houses as a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity.

Rosalynn Carter died at their home in Plains, Georgia, with family by her side. She was married to former President Jimmy Carter for more than seven decades. He has been in hospice care since February. He turned 99 last month.

Historian, professor and biographer Scott Kauffman wrote “Rosalynn Carter: Equal Partner in the White House” about her life and work.

Kauffman says Rosalynn Carter’s most prominent legacy is being an “activist First Lady. No doubt about it.” He says she “really broke the bounds for the First Lady.” She was the first to sit in on Cabinet meetings. She was the first to represent her husband, the President, to discuss substantive issues with foreign leaders.

After Rosalynn Carter’s father Edgar Smith passed away from cancer when she was a teenager in 1940, she and her mother Allie Murray Smith became co-heads of the family.

She felt inspired by her mother, seeing a strong woman raising four children on her own.

“Rosalynn really looked up to her mother as a role model,” Kauffman says.

Rosalynn Carter, then Smith, first met Jimmy Carter when she was just a few days old. Jimmy Carter’s mother, Lillian Carter, was a nurse who helped deliver baby Rosalynn. A few days later, she brought her 3-year-old son over to meet the newborn.

Years later, Rosalynn Carter became valedictorian of her high school. She married Jimmy Carter when she was 18 years old and together they had four children: John William, or Jack, James Earl III, or Chip, Donnel Jeffrey, and Amy.

And from peanut farming to political duties, they shared the responsibilities.

“It was very much a marriage of equals,” says Kauffman.“She played a major role in his administrations.”

President Jimmy Carter, right, and his wife, first lady Rosalynn Carter, lead their guests in dancing at the annual Congressional Christmas Ball, Dec. 13, 1978, at the White House in Washington. (Ira Schwarz/AP)

At the White House, she was the first First Lady to sit in on cabinet meetings. And she was the first to have an office and staff at the White House.

In domestic policy, she brought much-needed attention to mental health issues, one of her key initiatives throughout her life. In terms of foreign policy, she traveled to Southeast Asia and Latin America. It was not the first time for a First Lady to represent her husband’s administration, but she spoke about substantive political and economic issues with foreign leaders.

“Rosalynn Carter took that a big step forward,” Kauffman says. “That was going well beyond what previous First Ladies had done.”

After the Carters left the White House, Rosalynn Carter continued her work. She pushed for passage of the Mental Health Parity Act, which requires insurance companies to cover mental health conditions on par with the level of coverage for physical health conditions. She brought attention to issues around fair and affordable housing and advocated for elder care.

“If you look at rankings of First Ladies, almost continually Elanor Roosevelt is at the top …Rosalynn Carter generally has been in the top ten,” Kauffman says. “I would encourage people to look at who she was, what she sought to achieve, and how she went about to achieve it … She challenged the rules of what a First Lady was supposed to be.”

Shirley Jahad produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Catherine Welch. Jahad also adapted it for the web.

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