Rest in Power: Rosalynn Carter—Feminist, First Lady, and ERA and Mental Health Advocate

Rosalynn Carter speaks on the ERA in Houston in November 1977 during the National Women’s Conference, where 2,000 elected delegates and over 32,000 observers participated in the first and only federally funded national conference for women in U.S. history. (HUM Images / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

In the many tributes written since Rosalynn Carter’s death on Nov. 19, one word often is used to describe her: trailblazer. Indeed, Rosalynn Carter was like no other first lady, since Eleanor Roosevelt.

Rosalynn Carter established the first Office of the First Lady of the United States, complete with a budget and staff, and regularly attended cabinet meetings. Rosalynn Carter testified before Congress on mental health issues; made policy proposals on caregiving and established the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers in 1987; worked to advance women’s rights; and helped in the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.

The first first lady in history to have an office in the East Wing, Rosalynn provided the wise guidance and encouragement described in Jimmy Carter’s tribute message about her death: “Rosalynn was my equal partner in everything I ever accomplished. She gave me wise guidance and encouragement when I needed it. As long as Rosalynn was in the world, I always knew somebody loved and supported me.”

First Lady Jill Biden, along with many others, recognized her contributions: “She was well known for her efforts on mental health and caregiving and women’s rights.”

“Rosalynn Carter walked her own path, inspiring a nation and the world along the way,” said the Bidens in a statement. “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.”

American women have increasingly realized—as have men—the impact our opinions have in the voting booth and the marketplace.

Rosalynn Carter
Betty Friedan, Liz Carpenter, First Lady Rosalynn Carter, former first lady Betty Ford, Elly Peterson, Jill Ruckelshaus and Bella Abzug support the campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment in Houston at the 1977 National Women’s Conference. (Bettmann Archives / Getty Images)

While in the White House, the Carters together took up the fight to help pass the Equal Rights Amendment, with President Carter signing the extension of the Equal Rights Amendment Ratification (H.J. Res. 638) for extending the time limit to 1982. To help support the efforts, First Lady Rosalynn Carter met with ERA activists and leaders once a month in the White House.

Eleanor Smeal, the co-founder and president of the Feminist Majority Foundation and former NOW president, had fond memories of these meetings. “Rosalynn Carter was a cherished ally of the feminist movement and a committed advocate for equal rights, especially in her commitment to the ERA. She will be missed,” noted Smeal.

Rosalynn Carter received the Award of Merit for Support of the Equal Rights Amendment from the National Organization for Women, which she proudly included in her Carter Center biography. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2002.

There are only four kinds of people in this world: those who have been caregivers, those who are currently caregivers, those who will be caregivers and those who will need caregivers.

Rosalynn Carter

Other tributes were posted from those who knew and worked with Rosalynn Carter, including:

U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi:

Carter was a saintly and revered public servant driven by faith, compassion and kindness. 

On the world stage, First Lady Carter was a pioneer. Her historic, high-stakes diplomatic mission to Latin America in 1977 ushered in a new era of engagement in the region. Two years later, she became the first sitting First Lady to address the World Health Organization, where she argued that mental health was an aspect of physical health—and that health is a human right.

Michelle Obama:

You learn very quickly that there is no handbook or rules to being First Lady. … And while there are spoken and unspoken expectations that provide some structure, the role is largely shaped by the passions and aspirations of the person holding it.

First Lady Rosalynn Carter understood that well. Guided by her abiding faith and her commitment to service, Mrs. Carter used her platform in profoundly meaningful ways. Her groundbreaking work to combat the stigma faced by those struggling with their mental health brought light to so many suffering in silence. She advocated for better care for the elderly. She advanced women’s rights. And she remained a champion for those causes—and many others like building affordable housing for those in need and caring for our nation’s caregivers—in the more than four decades that followed.

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.

Bill and Hillary Clinton:

“Thanks to her mental health advocacy, more people live with better care and less stigma. Because of her early leadership on childhood immunization, millions of Americans have grown up healthier. And through her decades of work at the Carter Center and with Habitat for Humanity, she spread hope, health, and democracy across the globe. Rosalynn will be forever remembered as the embodiment of a life lived with purpose.

Former First Ladies Rosalynn Carter, Betty Ford and Lady Bird Johnson (centre-left, in green, blue and red, respectively) at the National Women’s Conference in November 1977. Also present is American writer and civil rights activist, Maya Angelou (far right). (HUM Images / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

League of Women Voters:

Rosalynn Carter was the consummate public servant who dedicated much of her life to enhancing the well-being of people all around the world. As the First Lady from 1977 to 1981, Rosalynn Carter was influential in her bold approach to her work, which she described as building a more caring society.’ … A defender of women’s rights and the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), Carter engaged with the League of Women Voters on several occasions, and in 1988, while celebrating the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution, Carter convened a ‘Women and the Constitution’ conference, highlighting the document’s omission of women.  

Elizabeth Flowers, associate professor of religion at TCU, Texas Christian University:

Rosalynn Carter was deeply invested in the struggle and fight for ERA. She views one of the biggest regrets of the Carter presidency, and her role in that, as the failure to pass the ERA.

“A lot of issues around the Equal Rights Amendment are still here with us today. So you can hear echoes of the 1970s, as so much of the rhetoric and discourse around these issues come from this earlier period. The tensions simply have not gone away, and in looking at Rosalynn, I find how much the past influences the way we talk about women, gender, feminism and issues of power in the present.

Rosalynn Carter’s own words are the most powerful about her belief and commitment to equality.

On March 8, 2016—International Women’s Day—the Huffington Post published an interview with Rosalynn, in which she reflected on progress made and challenges still unmet. She said:

“I was a strong advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have written equal rights for women into our Constitution. Of all the projects I worked on, my greatest disappointment was the failure to achieve ratification of the ERA. At the end, there were only 13 legislators who held it up. Jimmy and I tried hard to get them to change their minds. I am glad there is a renewed campaign to pass the ERA called ‘Equal Means Equal.’ I hope it succeeds this time around. Although there has been progress, women still struggle to take their full, rightful places in politics, the media, business and athletics. …

American women have increasingly realized—as have men—the impact our opinions have in the voting booth and the marketplace. We have united to impact politics and policy, but also importantly to use our influence to help the poor, the oppressed, and those who suffer from mental or physical illnesses.

When women are seen as inferior to men in every way, girls and women are vulnerable to rape and other sexual abuse, newborn girls are killed, female fetuses are aborted, genital mutilation occurs, women are trafficked for sex and domestic labor. The magnitude of the global problem is staggering. And then economic discrimination still keeps women in poverty and dependent on men. Not only does this degrade people and cause them to suffer, but whole economies are held back because so many women on earth are not allowed to contribute their talents.

On mental illness and women:

Certain mental illnesses—depression and anxiety disorders, for example—strike women almost twice as frequently as men. In addition, as with physical health, the greatest burden of caring for those with mental illnesses falls on women.

On caregiving:

In 1987, when she founded the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers, she said, “There are only four kinds of people in this world: those who have been caregivers, those who are currently caregivers, those who will be caregivers and those who will need caregivers.”

Asked once how she would like to be remembered, Rosalynn Carter said, “I would like for people to think that I took advantage of the opportunities I had and did the best I could.”

Up next:

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Kathy Bonk is a long-time feminist activist, contributor and advisor to Ms.