In the earliest years of the Congress, lack of housing and primitive living conditions in the new capital city prompted many wives of senators and representatives to remain at home rather than accompany their husbands to Washington, D.C. This was particularly true for the wives of less affluent members who could not afford to build or rent houses to accommodate their families. Even as late as the 1840s, when Representative Abraham Lincoln brought his wife Mary and three small children to Washington, he found that living and working in small, rented rooms was difficult. Within a short time, Mary Todd Lincoln and her children traveled to Lexington, Kentucky, to live with her family for the remainder of her husband's two-year term in the House of Representatives. By the mid-1800s, however, more and more Congressional wives were coming to Washington to keep their families together during congressional sessions. They became the focus of Washington's growing social scene, and frequent visitors to the House and Senate galleries. Fortunately, many of these women left behind letters and diaries, offering historians a unique perspective on the Senate during it's "golden era."
After the Civil War, hotels and apartment houses provided better and more numerous accommodations. The city now offered comfort and entertainment for wives and children. Senators tended to serve in office for longer periods of time, as well, and Congress remained in session a larger portion of the year. Consequently, more senators built homes in the capital and established year-round residences that included their wives and children. Since Senate staffs were small at that time—not until 1883 did the Senate provide each senator with a clerk—wives (or sons or daughters) of senators often did secretarial duties to help supplement the family income. This practice continued well into the 20th century. (For example, Bess Truman worked in Senator Harry Truman's office in the 1930s and 1940s and continued to provide clerical assistance when he became vice president in 1945.) After World War II, however, nepotism laws prevented the employment of family members, and increased staffing made such assistance unnecessary.
The Ladies of the Senate
In 1917, the Senate Ladies Red Cross Unit (also known as the "Ladies of the Senate" and later as "Senate Wives") was founded by Mrs. Key Pittman of Nevada to aid the allied cause in the First World War. Members of the group were all wives of current U.S. senators. Among the charter members was Lucille Sanderson Sheppard Connally. Married first to Morris Sheppard and later to Tom Connally, both senators from Texas, she enjoyed a 40-year tenure as a Senate spouse and helped shape the group's early activities.
For many years, the Ladies of the Senate met in a basement room of the Senate Office Building to knit, sew, and roll bandages to aid the war effort. After the war, the group's activities expanded to included other charitable work. The spouses maintained the connection with the Red Cross and sponsored the annual Senate blood drive throughout the 20th century.
In 1942, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt dropped in for lunch. Just like the regular members of the group, Mrs. Roosevelt brought her own sandwich in a bag. Since that time, the group has sponsored an annual luncheon for the first lady (but she no longer is required her to bring her own food).
The spouses' group has seen many changes during its nearly ninety years of existence. In 1931, a Senate spouse became a U.S. senator. Hattie Caraway, a Democrat from Arkansas, succeeded her husband, Thaddeus Caraway, when he died in 1931. The governor of Arkansas appointed Hattie Caraway to the seat, assuming she would simply hold it until the next election. Instead, she ran for the office and won an upset victory in 1932, making her the first woman elected to the Senate. She won again in 1938, and became the first woman to preside over the Senate in 1943. Despite her new position in the Senate, Caraway continued to meet with the Senate wives on a regular basis. When Senator Huey Long was assassinated in 1935, his widow Rose Long served out the remainder of his term. Their son, Russell Long, later served in the Senate, making them the only father-mother-son combination of U.S. senators. Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, often the only woman serving in the Senate of the 1950s and 1960s, frequently participated in the group's activities.
Senator Paula Hawkins of Florida (1981-1987) was the first woman elected to the Senate to be accompanied by her spouse. Previously, two women senators, Dixie Bibb Graves of Alabama and Elaine Edwards of Louisiana, had been appointed to office by their husbands (who were sitting governors) to fill vacancies. All other previous women senators had been widows or unmarried at the time of their election or appointment. During the 1990s, as an increasing number of women senators were accompanied by spouses, the Senate Wives became known as the "Senate Spouses."
Until the 1960s, very few Senate spouses pursued their own professional careers or had outside employment. During the Progressive era, Belle Case La Follette, who was married to "Fighting Bob" La Follette of Wisconsin, was herself a lawyer who helped edit and publish La Follette's Magazine, but she was largely the exception to the rule. In the 1950s, Nancy Kefauver, wife of Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, stood out because she was an artist with her own studio. By the 1960s, such business and professional pursuits were becoming more common. For example, Ellen Proxmire, wife of Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire, directed her own event-planning business throughout her husband's Senate career.
Today, Senate spouses typically pursue careers of their own, as lawyers, accountants, lobbyists, business executives, university professors or school teachers, to name a few. A number of spouses have held high-level positions in the executive branch. Prior to her election as a U.S. senator, Elizabeth Dole—then a Senate spouse—served as Secretary of Labor in the administration of President George H.W. Bush. Elaine Chao, wife of Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, held a cabinet position under President George W. Bush. Some spouses have held elective office themselves, such as Senator Arlen Specter's wife Joan, who served on the Philadelphia city council. Betty Bumpers, wife of former Senator Dale Bumpers of Arkansas, founded a national peace organization, "Peace Links—Women Against Nuclear War." Still others have kept their jobs in their home states, letting their senatorial spouses do the commuting on weekends. In 2000, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton became the first wife of a U.S. president to be elected to the Senate, making President Bill Clinton the first U.S. president to become a Senate spouse. Two years later, former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole took his position as a "junior" Senate spouse, when his wife Elizabeth became a senator.