Eleanor Rosalynn Carter: First Lady and Leader

“A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.”

– Rosalynn Carter

Eleanor Rosalynn Carter is the wife of the 39th President of the United States, Jimmy Carter, and served as the First Lady of the United States from 1977 to 1981. For decades, she has been a leading advocate for numerous causes, perhaps most prominently for mental health research. She was politically active during her White House years, sitting in on Cabinet and policy meetings as well as serving as her husband’s closest adviser. She also served as an envoy abroad, particularly in Latin America.

Rosalynn declared that she had no intention of being a traditional First Lady of the United States. During her husband’s administration, Rosalynn supported her husband’s public policies as well as his social and personal life. To remain fully informed, she sat in on Cabinet meetings at the invitation of the President. The first meeting she attended was on February 28, 1977, where she felt comfortable since she was among other officials that were not members of the unit. The idea for her to be in attendance came from her husband’s suggestion after she started to question him about a news story.

In March 1977, during her first interview since becoming First Lady, Carter outlined her goals in focusing on mental health:

“For every person who needs mental health care to be able to receive it close to his home, and to remove the stigma from mental health care so people will be free to talk about it and seek help. It’s been taboo for so long to admit you had a mental health problem.”

Rosalynn Carter served as an active honorary chair of the President’s Commission on Mental Health. On behalf of the Mental Health System Bill, enacted in 1980, she testified before a Senate committee, the second First Lady to appear before the Congress (the first being Eleanor Roosevelt). Of her priorities, mental health was the highest. Working to change the nature of government assistance to the mentally ill, Carter wanted to allow people to be comfortable admitting their disabilities without fear of being called crazy.