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. 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 were frequent visitors to the House and Senate galleries. Many looked for ways to pursue their own interests and serve the community.
In 1917 the Senate Ladies Red Cross Unit (also known as the "Ladies of the Senate" and later informally as "Senate Wives") was founded by Mrs. Key Pittman of Nevada to aid the allied cause in the First World War. For several years, the Ladies of the Senate met in a basement room of the Senate Office Building, now the Russell Building, to knit, sew, and roll bandages to aid the war and recovery effort. After the war, the group's activities expanded to include other charitable work. The spouses maintained the connection with the Red Cross and sponsored the annual Senate blood drive throughout the 20th century.
In 1936 First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt hosted the group at the White House. The next year, the Senate Ladies hosted the First Lady at their luncheon. Roosevelt returned in 1939 and 1942. When Bess Truman became First Lady in 1945, her long association with the Senate wives during her husband’s Senate service led to more frequent collaborative events. Since that time, the group has sponsored an annual luncheon for the First Lady.
The group has undergone many changes during its more than 100 years of existence. In 1931 a Senate spouse, Hattie Caraway, became a U.S. senator from Arkansas when she succeeded her husband (Thaddeus Caraway), who died in office. First appointed to office, Caraway won a special election and then the 1932 general election, making her the first woman elected to the Senate. She won again in 1938 and served until 1945. Despite her new position in the Senate, Caraway continued to meet with the Senate wives on a regular basis. 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. By the 1990s, as an increasing number of women senators were accompanied by spouses, the “Senate Wives” became known as the "Senate Spouses."