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Forgotten Pioneers: Leona Wells and Jesse Simpson


Leona Wells and Jesse Simpson

Even before the Senate reluctantly welcomed its first female senator in 1922, women had already influenced the Senate. In the early 20th century, for example, the Senate benefitted from a small but talented group of female staff. One of those pioneers was Leona Wells, who joined the Senate's clerical staff in 1901 and remained on the payroll for the next 25 years. Wells is believed to be the first woman to hold a professional, clerical position in the Senate.

Born in Illinois in 1877, this young suffragist moved to Wyoming when she turned 21, because she could cast a vote there. Wells soon met Senator Francis E. Warren, whose patronage brought her to Washington. As chair of the Military Affairs Committee, Warren appointed Wells as the committee's chief clerk, although she never officially received that title. When Warren became chairman of the Appropriations Committee in 1911, Wells once again went with him.

At the time, Leona Wells was unusual—a well-paid professional woman on Capitol Hill. In fact, she was so unusual that she attracted media attention. Leona Wells "is probably the most envied woman in government service," reported the Boston Globe in 1911, in an article titled "Uncle Sam's Highest Salaried Woman." Not only did she earn a good salary, the Globe noted, but she is "the first woman employee of the Senate to be placed in charge of the affairs of a big committee."

Leona Wells scouted new territory for female staff, but one area remained off limits—the Senate Chamber. When Chairman Warren was on the floor doing committee business, Wells had to wait outside. Male committee clerks freely entered the chamber, but the Senate was not yet ready to admit a female staffer. Instead, as the Globe reported, Wells waited "just outside the swing doors of the senate chamber . . . and kept the door an inch or two ajar that she might hear everything that went on inside."

Leona Wells was truly one of the Senate's pioneers, but other women followed to set their own milestones. In 1917, for example, Jesse Simpson became the first woman to hold the official title of clerk to a Senate committee, the Committee on Foreign Relations. Having been assistant clerk, Simpson gained the principal committee job with an annual salary of $3,000. As the committee's top clerk, the New York Times reported, Simpson took on tremendous responsibilities. "In her hands will be treaties with foreign Governments . . . and much other information of a delicate nature."

Like Leona Wells, Jesse Simpson proved that women in government service could tackle difficult jobs with great skill. Unlike Wells, however, Jesse Simpson did not have to stand outside the Senate Chamber door. Despite the fact she was a woman, in 1917 the Senate gave Jesse Simpson privileges of the floor.