Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Rosalynn Carter

Rosalynn Smith Carter was well aware of the powerful influence First Ladies could wield and thought "it would be a shame not to take full advantage of that power." Rosalynn Carter not only took advantage of the power her new position afforded, she organized it and expanded it in ways previous First Ladies had either never imagined or never attempted.

To maximize her power, as well as her time and energy, Rosalynn organized the "Office of the First Lady" -- as it was now officially called -- into four major departments: projects and community liaison, press and research, schedule and advance, and social and personal. She increased the number of full-time staff members and was the first First Lady to hire a chief of staff with a rank and salary commensurate with that of the other White House staff. And instead of wasting time signing her vast correspondence by hand, she cut corners by using an "Autopen" signature.

With her team in place and an office designed to run smoothly and efficiently, Rosalynn Carter got to work. She helped establish a White House Trust Fund, building on the efforts of predecessor Jackie Kennedy, whose $25 million endowment provided a permanent source of funding for purchasing and replacing necessary White House furniture and accessories. Rosalynn promoted services for the elderly and lent her support to the "Every Child by Two" childhood immunization program. She also supported the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), encouraged women to work outside the home, and lobbied the Pentagon to hire more women as White House honor guards. She believed volunteerism could help solve social problems and volunteered her own time to numerous causes throughout the country, and especially those dear to her local Washington, D.C., community. Rosalynn's concern for humanity would extend beyond the United States, and she used her visibility with the media to focus attention on the horrific conditions in refugee camps on the border between Thailand and Cambodia.

Though her office was in the East Wing of the White House, the First Lady's projects and interests affected work in the West Wing as well. Rosalynn served as an important advisor to her husband, and the President openly regarded his wife as his "secret weapon." But Rosalynn did more than just critique speeches and give opinions on appointments. She was an important asset to the President; at his request, she sat in on cabinet meetings and some national security briefings and was a key confidant during the Camp David Accords and the Iranian hostage crisis. Her interest in foreign affairs and her capacity for studying and understanding complex issues took on greater importance and controversy when she traveled as the President's official envoy to Latin America in 1977. While other First Ladies had traveled abroad to press their husband's agenda, none had engaged the issues directly. First Lady Rosalynn Carter did.

And she was well prepared for it. Already taking Spanish lessons three days a week, Rosalynn continued her language work and immersed herself in readings about U.S.-Latin American relations and Latin American literature. She was, as she put it, "determined to be taken seriously." Her work paid off. As she traveled to Jamaica, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela, Rosalynn discussed weighty issues with numerous Latin American leaders. Human rights, nuclear weaponry and energy, arms reduction, demilitarization, beef exports, American assistance, and drug trafficking dominated her agenda, and her reports to the President were filled with suggestions on how to improve ties to countries south of the border.

She also had suggestions on how to improve the lives of the mentally ill in the United States. Care and assistance for the mentally ill had become a great concern for Rosalynn Carter as well as for the President; Jimmy Carter had signed an Executive Order creating the President's Commission on Mental Health. Although Carter had hoped to appoint his wife as chairperson, he could not officially do so. Rosalynn thus became an honorary chair. Honorary or not, Rosalynn was an active and visible figure in the commission's work, attending meetings, touring mental health facilities, and using the media to focus attention on the subject and the commission's findings. She also lobbied on behalf of the commission's recommended Mental Health Systems Act, a commitment which led her to testify before Congress, the first First Lady to appear before that body since Eleanor Roosevelt did so in 1945.

On occasion, her high profile engendered occasional criticism at the hands of the press. Rosalynn's easy access to the President, her role as presidential emissary -- despite her lack of credentials -- and her own politicized interests no doubt conveyed an image of the First Lady as a political figure, more at home as an adviser in the West Wing than as a hostess in the White House ballroom. But Rosalynn firmly believed in what she was doing, at one time asserting, "I don't think that any man who would be President of the United States would have a wife with no ambition, who'd just sit and do nothing."

But even as she pursued her interests in domestic and foreign affairs, Rosalynn heeded the social responsibilities incumbent on a First Lady. She adopted a more casual approach to White House dining, doing away with the French menus and scheduling more family-oriented events such as picnics on the lawn. White House entertainments included not only poetry festivals and classical music concerts, but "Old Fashioned Gospel Sing-ins" and square dancing as well.

Rosalynn Carter was as much a symbol for her husband's administration as was the President himself. This became especially apparent in 1980 when Jimmy Carter stayed in Washington, D.C., to focus on the Iranian hostage crisis instead of hitting the campaign trail. As a result, Rosalynn Carter stood in for her husband -- at the primaries, at fund-raisers, and on the stump. Despite her efforts, the hostage crisis, a poor economy, and a divided Democratic party led to Ronald Reagan's victory in November 1980.

At one point during her tenure, Rosalynn Carter observed that "the role of First Lady has changed as the role of women has changed." Changes in the "Office of the First Lady" did not seem to bother her. Indeed, during her tenure in the White House, Rosalynn Smith Carter helped transform the institution of the First Lady. She hired a chief of staff, whose rank and pay were commensurate with West Wing staff, and organized her office to maximize her efficiency. Her policy initiatives -- which she pursued on her own and as the representative of the President -- helped further the notion that a First Lady could be more than just a social director and a fashion plate. Precisely how much more depended, of course, on the woman who occupied the position, as well as on the press that covered her and the public she served.