In Plains, Georgia, in 1946, it probably qualified as a mixed marriage. The bride, wearing a knee-length dress, was a Methodist, and the groom, recently graduated from the Naval Academy in his dress white uniform, was Southern Baptist.
That was the beginning, nevertheless, of a remarkable love story that endured until the death of Rosalynn Carter on November 19.
What might be less known is that Rosalynn was a scrappy feminist – even before the advent of second-wave feminism.
Jimmy and Rosalynn were partners in every sense of the word, but that is not to say that their marriage was always smooth sailing. After Carter attended his father’s deathbed in 1953 and returned to Rosalynn and his naval posting in Schenectady, New York, he announced they were leaving the navy and returning to Plains.
Rosalynn was not amused. “I argued, I cried. I even screamed at him,” she wrote in her memoir. “I loved our life in the Navy and the independence I had finally achieved. I knew it would be gone if I went home to live in the same community with my mother and Jimmy’s mother.”
The long car ride from Schenectady to southwestern Georgia transpired in almost total silence between these two strong-willed partners.
The early years of running the family peanut warehouse were rocky. When Carter handed over the financial affairs to Rosalynn, however, the business started to be profitable.
On the morning of his thirty-eighth birthday, October 1, 1962, Carter informed Rosalynn that he was headed to the courthouse to file papers to run for the Georgia state senate.
When I asked him about this in one of my conversations with him for the book “Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter,” he blushed. “I can’t believe I did that,” he said. With the hindsight of several decades, he couldn’t imagine embarking on such a venture without consulting Rosalynn.
As Jimmy Carter began campaigning, Rosalynn assisted with correspondence and eventually began campaigning in her own right.
After Carter was elected governor of Georgia in 1970, he casually commented that feminist concerns weren’t much of an issue with his wife. Rosalynn promptly assembled several of her friends and marched into the governor’s office to set him straight.
By the time the Carters reached the White House in 1977, they were full partners. Rosalynn was the first first lady to have an office in the East Wing, and she often attended Cabinet meetings. She regularly provided political advice, and she encouraged her husband to invite Menachem Begin and Anwar el-Sadat to Camp David.
Rosalynn often said that her biggest disappointment during her husband’s presidency was the failure to ratify the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution.
When Carter lost his bid for reelection in 1980, she was angry. When a White House aide remarked to Carter that he seemed to be accepting the loss with remarkable equanimity, Rosalynn shot back, “I’m bitter enough for the both of us.”
That bitterness arguably gave rise to the Carter Center. In one of our conversations, Carter told me that he had to reassure Rosalynn so frequently after their return to Plains that they still had a bright future that he began to believe it himself. He then came up with the idea for a presidential library and center that would be productive, not merely celebratory.
“We can start an adjacent institution, something like Camp David, where people can come who are involved in a war,” he told Rosalynn. “I can offer to serve as a mediator, in Atlanta or perhaps in their countries. We might also study and teach how to resolve or prevent conflict.”
Rosalynn headed the Carter Center’s initiatives on mental health, a favored project for years. In addition, the Carters constructed homes for Habitat for Humanity. They were rarely seen in public when they were not holding hands.
Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter were without a doubt each other’s best friend. While doing research and in the course of conversations with them for the book, I concluded that Rosalynn was the only person Jimmy Carter fully trusted.
That may come as a surprise. Most Americans think of politicians as gregarious and extroverted, but that was not my impression of Jimmy Carter. In many ways, he is the polar opposite of Bill Clinton – not in politics or policy, but in personality.
Whereas Clinton feeds off of social interaction and is energized by it, Carter endures it. He is wary. Yes, he had a coterie of trusted advisers – Hamilton Jordan, Jody Powell, Gerald Rafshoon – but with the passing of those who became known in Washington as the Georgia mafia, Rosalynn stood alone as his confidante.
I have no doubt that Jimmy Carter is deeply grieving the loss of the plucky feminist who was also his best friend.
An Episcopal priest, Balmer is John Phillips Professor in Religion at Dartmouth College and the author of more than a dozen books, with commentaries appearing in newspapers across the country. He is a contributing correspondent at Good Faith Media.