Nation mourns Rosalynn Carter, who helped redefine role of first lady

Condolences poured in from across the nation for former first lady Rosalynn Carter, who died Sunday, with elected officials, other prominent figures and nonprofits praising her work to redefine the role of the first lady, her dedication to humanitarian causes and her service to the country.

The Carter Center in Atlanta announced that she died at her home in Plains, Ga., two days after a statement that she had entered hospice care. She was 96.

President Biden and first lady Jill Biden acknowledged the news of Carter’s death as they opened a Thanksgiving event for service members and military families Sunday afternoon, just hours after news of Carter’s death became public.

“I’m sorry that I have to lead this off with a sad announcement. Former first lady Rosalynn Carter has just passed, and she was well known for her efforts on mental health and caregiving and women’s rights,” Jill Biden said.

After the event, the Bidens released an official statement, commending the former first lady for walking her own path and “inspiring a nation.”

“Rosalynn did so much to address many of society’s greatest needs. She was a champion for equal rights and opportunities for women and girls; an advocate for mental health and wellness for every person; and a supporter of the often unseen and uncompensated caregivers of our children, aging loved ones, and people with disabilities,” the Bidens stated.

Carter eschewed a ceremonial role as first lady, and instead served as a close political and policy adviser to her husband, former president Jimmy Carter. During her tenure, she created the modern Office of the First Lady, becoming the first in that role to maintain an office in the East Wing of the White House.


“Rosalynn Carter was a great partner to a consequential President and helped to define the modern role of First Lady,” former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. said on social media. “She was gracious, warm - and determined.”

Rosalynn Carter used the modernized first lady role to advocate for better treatment of the mentally ill, and was instrumental in securing congressional approval and funding for the Mental Health Systems Act in September 1980, the first major reform of federal mental health programs in nearly two decades, The Washington Post reported. She maintained her advocacy on mental health issues for decades after leaving the White House.

Former president Bill Clinton called Carter “an unwavering voice for the overlooked and underrepresented” in a statement from himself and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. “Hillary and I are deeply grateful for her extraordinary service to our nation and world, and for more than forty years of friendship,” the Clintons stated.

Former president George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush also expressed their condolences and praised Carter as “a woman of dignity and strength.”

“There was no greater advocate of President Carter, and their partnership set a wonderful example of loyalty and fidelity. She leaves behind an important legacy,” the couple stated.

Carter pushed forward a slate of issues while in the White House, including federal support for nationwide vaccine programs and laws to ensure children are vaccinated before kindergarten.

Former first lady Michelle Obama reflected in a statement Sunday on how Carter impacted her personally.

“You learn very quickly that there is no handbook or rules to being First Lady. Technically, it’s not even an official position,” Obama stated on social media. “When our family was in the White House, every so often, Rosalynn would join me for lunch, offering a few words of advice and always - always - a helping hand. She reminded me to make the role of First Lady my own, just like she did.”

Former first lady Melania Trump stated that Carter “leaves behind a meaningful legacy not only as First Lady but as a wife and mother. We will always remember her servant’s heart and devotion to her husband, family, and country.”

After the White House, the Carters went on to found the Carter Center, an Atlanta-based nonprofit organization committed to human rights. Rosalynn Carter and her husband, who were together 77 years, are often remembered most for their work after they departed the White House in 1981.

“Together, through their Carter Center and involvement in Habitat for Humanity, President and First Lady Carter have offered a beacon of light to every corner of the world,” said former House speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “Their beautiful love and partnership was truly a wonder for all to behold. May it be a comfort to President Carter, their children Jack, Chip, Jeff and Amy, their many grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and all of her loved ones that so many all over the globe are praying for them at this sad time.”

Jason Carter, one of Carter’s grandchildren and a former Georgia state senator, said in a message to supporters of the Carter Center on Sunday that it is “one of the greatest legacies she leaves behind.”

“She has been grateful for your support of her remarkable efforts to improve the welfare of people everywhere, whether by working to eradicate diseases, reducing the stigma of mental illnesses, or bringing peace to far corners of the world,” Jason Carter wrote.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a legal advocacy nonprofit focused on civil rights, mourned Carter’s loss. “Her unwavering commitment to service and her tireless efforts by President Carter’s side left an indelible mark. Let us honor her memory by carrying forward her compassion and empathy,” the SPLC wrote on social media.

Habitat for Humanity honored the former first lady in a social media post - the Carters spent a week each year building homes for low-income people with the group. The couple built or remodeled more than 4,300 homes in 14 countries, The Post reported.

Rosalynn Carter, who was born, raised and died in Plains, left a strong mark on the small city and across the state of Georgia as well.

“It’s sad news. You expect it, but always hurts when you hear it,” said L. E. “Boze” Godwin III, the longtime mayor of Plains. “Rosalynn was integral, a big part of our community. She was a wonderful First Lady and a dear, sweet friend.”


- - -

Mary Jordan, Joe Holley and Kevin Sullivan contributed to this report.