As tributes poured in former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, who died Sunday at age 96, she will be remembered as much for her practicality and her role as a trusted adviser as for her down-home style.
Advocating for mental health issues and emphasizing the importance of kindness to create a more caring society were paramount for her. Intent on creating “a more caring society,” she served in 1977 as the honorary chair of the then newly-established President’s Commission on Mental Health, after having been barred by statute from becoming the official chair. She also championed the passage of the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980 by holding hearings nationwide and testifying before Congress.
Having once told WWD that she regretted not being multi-lingual and believed “our nation needs to be more friendly with our allies,” Carter traveled extensively overseas during her White House years promoting her projects and the president’s policies. This included meeting with seven heads of state from seven Latin American countries, trumpeting her husband’s position on human rights and the importance of democracy. She was also the first first lady to address the World Health Organization.
A working mother of four, Carter was never a clotheshorse but she was known to carry a briefcase to the White House – another first for a presidential spouse. She also advocated for the Equal Rights Amendment and coordinated with voluntary relief organizations, labor and corporate leaders to help raise tens of millions of dollars for Cambodian refugees. Carter worked to immunize children against preventable diseases and organized a roundtable discussion at the White House about aging.
Shy, soft-spoken, doe-eyed and low-key, before moving into the White House in 1977 she liked nothing better than tending to her four-bedroom house, puttering with her plants, cooking, sewing and spending time with her youngest child Amy and their Siamese cat “Misty Malarkey Ying-Yang Carter.” That was among the many insights that Carter shared with WWD over the years. A sign of her certitude was evident in Carter’s hiring of Mary Prince, an African American woman, who had been wrongly convicted of murder, to be Amy’s nanny in the White House.
More of a roll-up-your-sleeves political wife than a look-at-my-designer-dress one, Carter’s simple style adhered to sustainability before it was defined by that term. Packing up her Plains, Ga., belongings, Carter said her sewing machine was the only thing she was intent on bringing to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Acknowledging the all-too-closeness of being in the spotlight in Washington, D.C. , Carter once told WWD, “I grew up in Plains, Ga., population 683, where everybody always knew everything I did.”
Carter felt so strongly about her background that she said, “I love being at home. I kind of feel sorry for people who don’t have roots. If I could build the White House anywhere, it would be right here [in Georgia].”
However reluctant Carter might have been about being in the limelight, she may have been underestimated as a political confidante. Known to sit in on policy meetings and ones with key business and educational leaders, she explained how her husband had always encouraged her to let him know if she thought he wasn’t doing the best job that he could and “sit him down and get upset.” He also told her, “If you think I am doing all that I can, don’t worry.’ Once you assume that attitude, you can do anything,” she told WWD.
When voters on the campaign trail questioned whether a Baptist like Carter could run the country, she reminded them that Harry Truman was also a Baptist and she thought he did “a great job.” Although Rosalynn Carter hinted at the fact that becoming first lady was not something that she had spent a lot of time thinking about, she also was upfront explaining that she “would ever be an Eleanor Roosevelt, but the flak doesn’t bother me.’” Her whisper of a voice may have belied the power she had over her husband. Carter told WWD that he listened to her and they shared a mutual respect.
Understanding the value of meeting people face-to-face, Carter became a valuable resource campaigning for her husband’s gubernatorial and presidential runs. Noting how she would not want to rely solely on the polls, she said, “I do think that you can spot a trend in person.”
She also understood that a president could only do so much and that she and her four children, especially her three married sons, could be an extension of her husband. So much so they would routinely report back to him with their travel findings about “such and such.” Some of that trust was built years prior, when Rosalynn Carter managed the books at the Carter-owned peanut warehouse.
The eldest of four, Carter was candid with WWD about the challenges she faced. “All my life, there were different things that I had to face,” citing her father’s death when she was 13 as one example and her maternal grandmother’s death the following year. As a youngster she liked to sew, play basketball, was named valedictorian at her high school of about 60 and attended two years of college.
Once ensconced in the White House in the energy-crunched Seventies, Carter was not eager to dive into the state dinner side of her responsibilities and once assured WWD that she would not be dancing at any of them until 2 a.m. Nor would she orchestrate any elaborate menus for those honored guests, preferring to host the kinds of dinners that she was more comfortable with. Her priorities were elsewhere. “There’s too much work for that,” she once said.
Her first lady style also showed off her sense for sustainable options. For the 1977 inaugural balls she wore a Mary Matise for Jimmae gold-trimmed blue chiffon gown with a gold-embroidered sleeveless gold coat – the same ensemble she had worn for her husband’s gubernatorial inaugural years before. True to form, she purchased it in an Americas, Ga,. store – Jimmy’s. Albert Nixon was another designer that she wore as first lady. Carter also enlisted the talents of the interior decorator Carleton Varney to spruce up her new home. Substance was her aim, having once said, “Do what you can to show you care about others, and you will make the world a better place.”
When asked how she would like to be remembered, Carter said, “I would like for people to think that I took advantage of the opportunities I had and did the best I could.”