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 were 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 actions and personalities of the Senate. Just one example is Thirty Years in Washington, or, Life and Scenes in our National Capital, by Mrs. John A. Logan, published in 1901.
After the Civil War, hotels and apartment houses provided improved and more numerous accommodations. The city offered better entertainment and cultural resources for wives and children, while senators served during increasingly longer sessions of Congress. Consequently, more senators built homes in the capital and established year-round residences which they shared with their families.
Since Senate staffs were small at that timenot until 1883 did the Senate provide each senator with a clerkwives (or sons or daughters) of senators often did secretarial or other clerical duties to help supplement the family income. This practice continued well into the 20th century. Bess Truman, for example, 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 the professionalization of 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 informally 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, and eventually wives of former senators as well as a few female senators joined the group.
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 weekly luncheon. She returned again in 1939 and 1942. When Bess Truman became First Lady in 1945, her long association with the Senate wives (prior to becoming vice president, Harry Truman had been a senator since 1935) led to more frequent events. Since that time, the group has sponsored an annual luncheon for the First Lady.
The group has undergone many changes during its nearly 100 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. 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.
Senator Paula Hawkins of Florida, who served from 1981 to 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, or professors, 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, for example, Elizabeth Dolethen a Senate spouseserved as Secretary of Transportation under President Ronald Reagan and as Secretary of Labor in the administration of President George H.W. Bush. Elaine Chao, wife of Kentucky senator Mitch McConnell, served as Secretary of Labor in the administration of President George W. Bush and as Secretary of Transportation for President Donald J. Trump.
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 LinksWomen Against Nuclear War." A growing number of spouses have chosen to keep their jobs in their home states, letting their husbands or wives 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 Senate spouse, when his wife Elizabeth Doleformer cabinet secretary—became a U.S. senator from North Carolina.
Political spouses have always been a formidable force in American politics, from Abigail Adams and Dolley Madison to Eleanor Roosevelt and Nancy Reagan. Senate spouses continue to play an important role in the Senate of the modern era, not only as partners in Senate families, but also as active, dynamic, and influential actors in the American political system.