Rosalynn Carter Helped Shape the Role of the Modern First Lady

Some two decades after leaving the White House, Rosalynn Carter reflected on the criticism she generated for expanding the role of a first lady. “You can’t let it stop you,” she told an interviewer. “I didn’t let it stop me.”

She had greater ambitions than simply throwing state dinners, she explained, and she paved the way for a new, more enduring view of how a presidential spouse could make a difference. “The first lady role has changed,” she observed. “I don’t think there will ever be another first lady who will be just a hostess and pour tea.”

If that is true, Mrs. Carter will have been one of the primary reasons.

While she spent only four years in the White House, she transformed the unelected, unpaid and sometimes unappreciated position of first lady in ways that reverberate to this day. By the time she died at age 96 on Sunday at her home in Plains, Ga., she had long since dropped out of public view, but every one of her successors knew how important she was in shaping the role they inherited.

“We have Rosalynn Carter to thank for helping to expand and formalize the modern first lady’s office, a structure that is largely still in place to this day,” said Anita B. McBride, who served as chief of staff to Laura Bush when she was first lady — a staff job that itself has its origins in Mrs. Carter’s era. “It was a time in the country of profound change for women, and she wanted to seize the opportunities before her.”

Mrs. Carter never gained the international stature of Eleanor Roosevelt nor reached the political heights of Hillary Rodham Clinton, but she served as a full collaborator to her husband, former President Jimmy Carter. “Rosalynn was my equal partner in everything I ever accomplished,” her husband said in a statement on Sunday.

Ms. McBride, who along with two other authors published “U.S. First Ladies” this year on the history of the role, said, “She was a true life partner to her husband and fully intended to be just that when he became president.”

“She overcame shyness and became as good as or a better politician than he was,” she said. “There is no doubt he trusted her and her judgment.”

While modest and low-key, Mrs. Carter was a shrewd judge of character and politics, offering advice throughout her husband’s time in the White House from 1977 to 1981, most notably by inspiring and assisting his landmark Camp David meetings that brokered peace between Israel and Egypt.

Mrs. Carter shaking hands with President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt during peace talks with Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel at Camp David in 1979.Credit…Corbis, via Getty Images

“Mrs. Carter revealed the hidden powers a first lady is bestowed and can use, should she choose to do so, that Americans had not seen since the days of Eleanor Roosevelt,” said Michael LaRosa, a former spokesman for Jill Biden. “Eleanor set a new standard for the role. Lady Bird Johnson and Betty Ford were both groundbreakers and activists in their own way, leaving impressively lasting legacies. But Rosalynn, from the time she was first lady of Georgia to first lady of the land, took the activist model to a new level.”

She did not stick to her own personal issues, although she was a vocal and passionate champion of increasing access to mental health services, her signature cause. She weighed in on all sorts of domestic and international affairs, offering Mr. Carter her unvarnished counsel. He did not always take her advice. But he always listened.

“Rosalynn’s involvement touched virtually every aspect of her husband’s presidency,” E. Stanly Godbold Jr. wrote in a two-volume biography of the Carters.

Mrs. Carter pushed the boundaries that had constrained most of her predecessors. Just last week, “The Lady Bird Diaries,” a new documentary released on Hulu by Dawn Porter, based on the book by Julia Sweig, documented how Lyndon B. Johnson’s wife was a key force behind the scenes during his presidency. But Mrs. Carter institutionalized the role as it had never been.

She established a formal Office of the First Lady complete with an 18-person staff in the East Wing of the White House — “I had to go out the back door at first until people got used to having it there,” she told Melanne Verveer, who was Mrs. Clinton’s chief of staff — and she stunned traditionalists by attending cabinet meetings and national security briefings. She had officially scheduled weekly lunches with her husband to discuss policy issues, she traveled overseas solo to represent him and she testified before Congress.

“I would put Rosalynn Carter in the category of activist first lady,” said Ms. Verveer, the interviewer who talked with Mrs. Carter shortly after the Clintons left office in 2001 for an article on first ladies and pulled out her notes on Sunday. “This is a position with no definition. You’re only in it because of your marriage. It’s very hard to please in this position. But she came out of being a very active first lady in Georgia.”

Not every first lady who followed would be counted as an activist but they all kept the office, the staff and the platform she bequeathed them. “She reminded me to make the role of first lady my own, just like she did,” Michelle Obama said in a statement on Sunday, recalling their lunches together during her own White House years. “I’ll always remain grateful for her support and her generosity.”

Mrs. Carter painting a wall at a hospital in Washington in 1978.Credit…Cook/Associated Press

Mrs. Carter at times kept her distance from some of her successors. Nancy Reagan recalled in her memoir a “chill in her manner” when Mrs. Carter showed her around the White House following the 1980 election when Ronald Reagan defeated Mr. Carter. Barbara Bush later wrote that “I don’t believe that she and Nancy liked each other very much.”

Mrs. Bush indicated that she did not connect with Mrs. Carter much either. “I get the feeling that she is a nice lady who loves her husband very much and is not as happy and content as she should be,” she observed.

The current first lady, Dr. Biden, traveled with her husband to visit Mrs. Carter and her husband just a few months after moving into the White House in 2021. Like Mrs. Carter, Dr. Biden campaigned for her husband in places he could not go. Dr. Biden, who teaches at a community college in Northern Virginia outside Washington, is the first presidential spouse to hold an outside job.

Dr. Biden “isn’t an activist first lady” in the way that Mrs. Carter was, said Mr. LaRosa, the former aide to the current first lady. She does not pursue her own policy agenda independent from her husband. But she has benefited from the trailblazing of her predecessor.

“There really is no comparison between first ladies,” he said. “They’re all unique and recreate the job in their own style. But her love and admiration for Rosalynn Carter was personal and boundless.”

Mrs. Carter would have been fine with Dr. Biden’s own conception of the position — she understood that each first lady had to make the position her own. “Hillary would always say that each woman who came to that position had to determine how best, with her husband the president, her role would play out,” Ms. Verveer said. “But I think each one builds on the other.”

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