Remembering Rosalynn Carter
Former First Lady and global philanthropist Rosalynn Carter died Nov. 19 at age 96 after a life of service to the well-being of children, women, their families and those suffering from mental illness.
She was also a White House pioneer, often underestimated by the media and the public but a force to be reckoned with inside government during the administration of her husband, President Jimmy Carter. Most Americans now would associate her with the hands-on work the Carters have done for Habitat for Humanity. They might not know that Rosalynn Carter actively participated in the nation’s policy-making, attended Cabinet meetings and established the first-ever office of the First Lady in the East Wing — a practice followed by all of her successors.
Mrs. Carter persuaded her husband to significantly increase the number of “boat people” admitted to the United States after fleeing Southeast Asia when the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam. With her encouragement, the president appointed more than five times as many women to be federal judges as all previous presidents combined. Later on, she would start the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers.
But first she lived in southeastern Connecticut as the wife of a young Naval submarine officer. One son was born here while Lt. James Earl Carter Jr. trained for the new nuclear Navy under Admiral Hyman Rickover.
Some 40 years later, long after the Carter presidency, she visited again — this time on behalf of Every Child by Two, a movement she and former Arkansas First Lady Betty Bumpers started in response to a 1991 measles epidemic that struck more than 55,000 people, sent 11,000 to hospitals and killed more than 120, including many young children.
Mrs. Carter had already campaigned for better understanding and treatment of mental illness, resulting in the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980. She and Mrs. Bumpers then tackled public health, persuading 33 state legislatures to require childhood immunizations before kindergarten. Eventually they advocated in all 50 states.
Claudia Weicker, whose late husband, Lowell P. Weicker Jr., was governor of Connecticut at the time, recalls seeing Rosalynn Carter in action in the state.
“She was just as described in the many reports since her death: gracious, soft-spoken, unassuming, grateful for small courtesies and had both a quick intellect and sense of humor.
“Together we visited hospital maternity wards, met with the press and business community....”
“The one comment that she made which has always remained with me is that, during their early marriage and his service as a submariner, their life in Connecticut had been among the happiest times in their marriage.”
Commenters and biographers have noted that the Carters together made the post-presidency their next career after he failed to win re-election. What emerges from the spectrum of all they undertook is that they significantly affected chronic human ills — although so many are still with us or back with us today.
Parents and even some candidates have pitted themselves against vaccinations for all ages, a dangerous risk not only for themselves and their children but everyone with whom they come into contact. Measles, all but eradicated after the efforts headlined by the two first ladies, has been making an avoidable comeback.
Mental health treatment emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic as a major issue for students, school staff and others whose lives were upended by isolation. Little and sometimes no progress in expanding understanding and treatment started with the first budget of President Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan. Both lagged to varying degrees until the Affordable Care Act 30 years later.
Immigration has grown into one of the nation’s most distressing problems, as the refugees of today — like those of the 1970s — flee oppression.
Caregivers are at last receiving some visibility for the essential and difficult work they do.
Vulnerable children and their families we will always have with us — but less drastically for them and for society when strong women and men emulate the tireless work of advocates like Rosalynn Carter.
Mrs. Carter spoke softly and carried a big stick, to quote a president many decades before her husband. She improved many lives for a long, long time. It is hard to imagine a better epitaph.
Rosalynn Carter leaves her husband, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
The Day editorial board meets with political, business and community leaders to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Timothy Dwyer, Executive Editor Izaskun E. Larraneta, Owen Poole, copy editor, and Lisa McGinley, retired deputy managing editor. The board operates independently from The Day newsroom.
Comment threads are monitored for 48 hours after publication and then closed.