Adalberto Roque / AFP Photo / Newscom / File
Rosalynn Carter set a new standard for political activity among first ladies.
As early as Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign, she traveled around the US to raise support for him. Her involvement remained steady throughout her term as first lady, and included weekly business lunches to discuss policy issues with the president in the Oval Office every Wednesday. For the first time, a first lady kept an office in the East Wing of the White House, which had previously been used for the first lady’s projects and scheduling staff.
One of her first policy efforts – that she still advocates for today – focused on mental-health issues. Named the active honorary chair of the President’s Commission on Mental Health, Mrs. Carter assembled an advisory board of experts that outlined policies to reform health insurance, public housing, Medicaid and Medicare for the chronically mentally ill. Carter also worked to increase federal funding for research grants from the National Institute of Mental Health.
In 1979, Carter testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Health in support of the Mental Health Systems Act, originally written by her advisory board. In September 1980, the Senate passed and funded the act.
Carter also used her influence to aid the elderly, in reforming Social Security, lobbying against the mandatory retirement age, and working to increase funding for elderly services.
Carter engaged in politics beyond US borders as well. In the summer of 1977, she embarked upon one of the most extensive international itineraries for a first lady, during which she discussed human rights, arms reduction, and drug trafficking – in fluent Spanish.
Carter also became involved in the refugee crisis in Cambodia, raising millions of dollars for the newly created National Cambodian Crisis Committee and urging the president to allow more Cambodian refugees into the US.
Since 1980, Carter has worked with her husband on Habitat for Humanity and The Carter Center, which they jointly founded, where she serves as chair of the Mental Health Task Force. In 2010, Carter released her book "Within Our Reach: Ending the Mental Health Crisis."