Editor’s note: The following originally appeared in the G&G book Southern Women: More than 100 Stories of Innovators, Artists, and Icons. The book features interviews with, odes to, and essays by musicians, actors, artists, designers, entrepreneurs, authors, chefs, public servants, and more who have roots in the region.
Eleanor “Rosalynn” Smith was born in Plains, Georgia, on August 18, 1927, the oldest of four children. When she was thirteen, her father died of leukemia, leaving her to help her mother with raising the rest of the children and to work as a dressmaker in order to help make ends meet—so began a lifetime of caring for others.
That little girl would grow up to establish commissions to advocate for the mentally ill, to fight the effects of poverty, and to eradicate vaccine-preventable diseases. She would be instrumental in passing the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980. The small-town Georgia woman drove policy discussions and reshaped the way public officials do their jobs, but her name was never on the ballot—her husband’s was. As First Lady to Jimmy Carter, Rosalynn Carter paved the way for generations of leaders to come.
Long before he was the thirty-ninth president of the United States, Jimmy was just the cute older brother of Rosalynn’s friend Ruth. He was in Annapolis at military school when the two began dating in 1945, and it wasn’t long before Jimmy proposed marriage. Rosalynn turned him down—it was too quick, she thought. But two months later, when he asked again, she said yes, and the two were married in July of 1946. Jimmy’s naval duties moved the couple all over the country until 1953, when his father passed away. Jimmy resigned from service, and the couple—now with three children in tow—moved back to Plains, Georgia, to take over the family peanut business.
As Jimmy made his way, first on the farm, and then as a politician, Rosalynn proved a vital part of the family’s success. She ran accounting for the peanut business, handled political correspondence, and campaigned for his governorship. On the campaign trail, Rosalynn saw the need for mental health advocacy firsthand, and in the governor’s mansion she began her lifelong crusade for the mentally ill, serving on the Governor’s Commission to Improve Services to the Mentally and Emotionally Handicapped. Her resolve only strengthened when Jimmy made a bid for the White House. The first candidate’s spouse to make a campaign promise of her own, she swore she would advocate for those affected by mental illness, and though her policy aspirations and involvement in the president’s work rubbed some the wrong way, Rosalynn never abandoned that mission.
In the decades since the Carter presidency, Rosalynn has continued to fight for underserved members of the community, especially women and children. Through the Carter Center, which the couple founded in 1982, she promotes advancements in the mental health field. In 1991, she helped launch Every Child by Two, a campaign to eliminate preventable diseases by spreading awareness about vaccination. Her alma mater, Georgia Southwestern State University, has established an institute in her name to support and train caregivers—something that the thirteen-year-old Rosalyn would certainly have found a worthy cause. Her life has come full circle in many ways, not least in her love for her hometown: Today, the Carters have found themselves back in Plains—living in the same modest home they left when Jimmy won the presidency.