Rosalynn Carter made her mark as a first lady of 'firsts'
She is in the pantheon of American first ladies, writes Barbara Perry
From the moment I saw in person the new first lady, Rosalynn Carter, marching hand in hand down Pennsylvania Avenue on Jan. 20, 1977, with her freshly inaugurated husband, President Jimmy Carter, I knew they were going to be a different first couple. Mrs. Carter—who died Sunday at 96, after entering hospice care, which her husband is also under, at their home in Plains, Georgia—introduced a number of “firsts” as first lady that demonstrated this difference I had sensed.
Let me count the ways:
1. We are now used to the president and first lady strolling along at least part of the inaugural parade route between the Capitol and White House. Mrs. Carter and her husband were the initiators of that populist perambulation. After the Watergate nightmare that seemed to expand the “imperial presidency,” as historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. labeled it, Americans were ready for occupants of the Executive Mansion who seemed more like “the people” than royalty.
2. Expanding on this theme, Mrs. Carter was the first presidential spouse to send a daughter to public school. Named for the renowned abolitionist, Sen. Thaddeus Stevens, Amy Carter’s grade school, constructed just after the Civil War, educated Washington’s Black children and those of newly freed slaves as they moved out of the South. The White House happened to sit in Stevens School’s district, so off to the integrated institution went the youngest child of the Carters’ four offspring. Mrs. Carter even attended parents’ meetings when funding cuts threatened after-school programs.
3. First ladies’ projects contracted after Eleanor Roosevelt’s 12-year tenure, as a reaction to her unprecedentedly expansive portfolio, necessitated in part by her husband’s physical limitations caused by polio and congestive heart failure, which took his life in 1945. Bess Truman preferred to spend long periods of time in her family’s Independence, Missouri, home, and Mamie Eisenhower was a more traditional first lady, never eager to take on a policy role. Likewise, Jacqueline Kennedy, mother of two young children when she arrived at the White House in 1961, eschewed most political tasks, leaving them to her husband and his extended family. Lady Bird Johnson happily campaigned for Lyndon throughout the South in 1964, where he had grown unpopular after signing the Civil Rights Act that year. But it was Rosalynn Carter who became the first presidential spouse to testify before Congress on a national issue (mental health), and she was an active chair of the President’s Commission on Mental Health. Her leadership in this field, almost to her death, demonstrably reduced the stigma of mental afflictions.