POLITICS

Rosalynn Carter Pushed Boundaries Even Before Moving into the White House

Carter’s had her own transition team helping get ready

Heath Brown
3Streams
Published in
3 min readNov 20, 2023

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Rosalynn Carter died this weekend; gone just days before this week’s giving of thanks. But, what a life to be thankful for, so much of it recounted in the obituaries and remembrances shared online.

Of especial note was Carter’s vision for her time in the White House. In Peter Baker’s article on Rosalynn Carter’s passing, he quotes Mrs. Carter as saying “I don’t think there will ever be another first lady who will be just a hostess and pour tea.”

Carter’s boundary-pushing on the office started early, even before the family had moved in to the White House.

There’s an archived copy of the staff list for the Carter-Mondale transition team that attests to just this. Mrs. Carter had a substantial team in place helping her get ready, perhaps the largest team to date. Seven people — six women and one man — were together in rooms 25529 and 25523 according to the Staff Directory, including Ann Anderson, Kathryn Cade, Faith Collins, Jane Fenderson, Mary Hoyt, Ricky Hutto, and Madeline MacBean (the entire Carter transition team also had a record-number of women on staff).

In an oral history archived at the Carter Library, one member of the team, Jane Fenderson, explained they “were trying to assemble a staff, define what responsibilities and the structure of the staff for responsibilities managing the staff, hiring people to fill unfilled slots” all while fielding angry phone calls demanding invitations for the inauguration.

Source: NARA

In her memoir, Mrs. Carter’s recounted that her first chance to actually visit the White House during the transition period was nearly cancelled because the outgoing first lady, Betty Ford, was feeling ill. To avoid a scandal in the press, Ford rallied at the last moment, greeting Mrs. Carter in the Yellow Oval Room.

Many from this group of transition aides went on to staff Mrs. Carter’s White House office; each interviewed by Mrs. Carter herself before the inauguration for their positions. Donnie Ratcliffe from the New York Times reported at the time that they’d divided the work in two — the public Mrs. Carter and the private — reflecting her interests in an agenda focused on mental health. Instrumental in this was Kathryn Cade who had done television programming on health issues prior to serving on Mrs. Carter’s White House staff.

Another aide, Mary Hoyt, became the First Lady’s press secretary. She was asked in 1979 by the New York Times to comment on a photo of Mrs. Carter with the serial killer John Wayne Gacy. She had a lot to share when she went on to write a memoir about her time in the White House.

And this group didn’t stop at there.

One, Faith Collins, became known as the “Muffin Lady”, selling “Briefcase Breakfasts” as a street vendor in DC. Another, Jane Fenderson (Cabot) later ran a nonprofit in Maine.

Future presidential spouses have largely followed Rosalyn Carter’s lead. Though not every one sought such an active role in White House affairs, many seem to have learned from Mrs. Carter the importance of quickly staking out an agenda and having a team in place early to make this possible.

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Heath Brown
3Streams

Heath Brown, associate prof of public policy, City University of New York, study presidential transitions, school choice, nonprofits