Rosalynn Carter, former US first lady, dies aged 96

Rosalynn Carter
Jimmy Carter said that his wife was his 'equal partner in everything' he ever accomplished - Jim Young/Reuters

Rosalynn Carter, the former US first lady, has died at the age of 96.

She passed away peacefully on Sunday surrounded by her family at the couple’s home in Georgia, the Carter Center announced.

She had joined her husband in at-home hospice care on Friday, after being diagnosed with dementia in May.

“Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, a passionate champion of mental health, caregiving, and women’s rights, passed away Sunday, Nov 19, at 2.10pm at her home in Plains, Georgia, at the age of 96. She died peacefully, with family by her side,” the Carter Center said.

Jimmy Carter, the former US president, added: “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.”

Jimmy Carter
The Carters at the Democratic National Convention in Madison Square Garden in 1976 - AP

Throughout Mr Carter’s long political career, his wife was at the heart of his campaigns. And once in the White House, from 1977 to 1981, Mrs Carter was often invited to sit in as an observer at cabinet meetings and political strategy discussions.

In a 1978 interview, Mr Carter said he shared almost everything with his wife except top-secret material. “I think she understands the consciousness of the American people and their attitudes perhaps better than do I,” he said.

The first lady was also sent on important official missions to Latin America, and was part of the unsuccessful campaign for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution to ensure equal treatment of women under the law.

Meanwhile, the Iranian hostage crisis - in which American diplomats and others were held captive in Tehran after the Islamic revolution - occurred when Mr Carter was seeking re-election. The crisis contributed to the downfall of his presidency as he refrained from campaigning while trying to resolve the stand-off.

During that time, Mrs Carter sought to support her husband by speaking in 112 cities in 34 states during a 44-day tour.

Her speeches and forays into crowds were credited with helping her husband defeat Ted Kennedy, his Democratic challenger, in the 1980 primaries, although he went on to lose overwhelmingly to Ronald Reagan in the general election.

The Carters dancing during the congressional Christmas ball at the White House in 1978 - BILL FITZ-PATRICK/JIMMY CARTER LIBRARY/HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

In the White House, Mrs Carter also became honorary chair of the President’s commission on mental health, which was key to the passage of a 1980 act that helped fund local mental health centers.

After leaving Washington, she pursued her work through the Carter Center, a private, nonprofit institution that the Carters founded in Atlanta in 1982.

She continued to advocate for mental health, early childhood immunisation, human rights, conflict resolution and the empowerment of urban communities.

“I hope our legacy continues, more than just as first lady, because the Carter Center has been an integral part of our lives. And our motto is waging peace, fighting disease and building hope,” she said in 2013.

“And I hope that I have contributed something to mental health issues and help improve a little bit the lives of people living with mental illnesses.”

The Carters celebrating an election win in 1970 - Billy Downs/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP

Mrs Carter was born in the small town of Plains on Aug 18, 1927, the first of four children.

She met Mr Carter in 1945 while she was in college and he was on leave from the US Naval Academy in Annapolis. They married in 1946, and hold the record as the longest-wed presidential couple.

The former first lady is survived by her four children, 11 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren, after losing a grandson in 2015.

Chip Carter, the former first lady’s son, said: “Besides being a loving mother and extraordinary first lady, my mother was a great humanitarian in her own right.

“She will be sorely missed not only by our family but by the many people who have better mental health care and access to resources for caregiving today.”

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