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Shrouded in History

Fellowship Has Been Spouses Group’s First Order of Business

With the election of Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) and Elizabeth Dole (R) to the Senate, the relatively sedate Senate Spouses’ group, long the preserve of ladies who lunched and sewed for charity, appeared poised for a major injection of Washington power players.

After all, the two Senators’ husbands were not only the respective former president and Senate Majority Leader, but had run against each other for the nation’s top office in 1996. And during the 2002 election, Dole famously told the press he had a new strategy to beat his old nemesis Clinton, though this time the race would be for the presidency of the spouses’ organization.

But despite their much-ballyhooed public ribbings, in the two years since Elizabeth Dole’s election to the world’s most exclusive club, neither man has managed to make it up to the first-floor Capitol Senate Spouses meeting room for the weekly Tuesday luncheon; meanwhile, the quiet tradition that has carried on in various forms for much of the past 100 years has remained largely immune to the heightened partisanship and divisive rhetoric that long ago infected many of Congress’ other long-standing institutions. It is, from all accounts, a model of fellowship and goodwill.

“There are no uniforms or pins or secret handshakes,” said Jackie Clegg Dodd, wife of Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.). “It’s just a bunch of busy people who get together for some camaraderie.”

Great War Origins

Though widely referred to in the media as the Senate Spouses’ Club, the group was and is a chapter of the American Red Cross.

Founded in 1917 by Mrs. Key Pittman, wife of the Senator from Nevada, the chapter initially rolled bandages for soldiers in World War I, a task it continued in World War II and to some degree in later conflicts. Between January 1942 and June 1945, as Mrs. Arthur Vandenberg once noted, the Senate Ladies Red Cross Unit was responsible for no less than 337,990 dressings. Lunch was casual during wartime with members told to bring their own sandwiches.

Gone are the days when the women arrived at meetings wearing Florence Nightingale-style hats, said Karyn Frist, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s (R-Tenn.) wife. But even today, the spouses still support the Red Cross during Senate blood drives, volunteering to help check people in and baking cookies for those who give blood. After the 2001 anthrax attacks on the Hill, the spouses, who receive disaster training from the Red Cross, also helped process staffers during the anthrax screenings.

“We felt we might be able to offer some security,” said Suzanne Craig, the group’s recording secretary, who is married to Idaho Sen. Larry Craig (R). “If we were able to be there then other people might feel there wasn’t anything to panic about so much.”

And at the request of Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), Frist said groups of four or five spouses would soon begin visiting injured U.S. soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital.

Still, despite the thread of continuity, the group has not been immune to change, noted Ann Simpson, wife of former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) and a regular attendee for nearly 20 years.

“It’s all very different now,” said Simpson, noting that in past years the group had met at 10 a.m. in a Russell Senate Office Building basement room before lunch to sew blankets and ponchos for the homeless and make puppets for patients at the Children’s Hospital.

Sometime during the late 1990s, then-Senate Chaplain Lloyd Ogilvie began holding a Bible study for some of the women after the luncheon concluded, a tradition that has continued under current Chaplain Barry Black.

After the 2001 anthrax discovery, the group moved the weekly luncheon meeting from the Russell basement to the Capitol’s Room S-145, a rather feminine room with chandeliers, floral settees and a direct line on the Washington Monument.

And the culinary offerings, while simple, have certainly improved since the early days.

The noon, buffet-style luncheon — which on a recent Tuesday consisted of fresh fruit, Cobb salad, pork chops, risotto, cream of broccoli and minestrone soup, along with chocolate-covered strawberries and petit fours — is prepared by Senate catering at a cost of $5.50 to each member, said Diane Nelson, whose husband is Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.).

Some traditions, however, such as the annual first lady’s luncheon, typically held in May, have remained a constant since the event was first inaugurated during the 1940s to honor then-first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the first president’s wife to drop by the weekly gathering. The luncheon, to be held on May 4 this year, is being organized by a committee of about 26, said Nelson, the event’s chairwoman, though she declined to discuss the theme. “It’s always a secret for the first lady,” added Frist, this year’s co-chairwoman.

And while the “old-fashioned sewing-bee” atmosphere may no longer predominate, said Frist, the group hasn’t totally lost its domestic heritage. Last year, the spouses stitched together a quilt with squares decorated by children from all 50 states as a gift for Bush.

A Time for ‘Fellowship’

The 10 to 25 women who usually gather each week the Senate is in session is intensely private. Meetings are off the record and closed to non-spouses, including friends and relatives, said Diane Nelson. Of the dozen or so members — all Senate spouses are lifetime members, except in the case of divorce — contacted for this piece, about half declined comment or did not return calls seeking comment.

There is a strict no-politics policy among members, several of whom used the word “fellowship” to describe the organization’s primary purpose. (In January 2005, the group will hold a luncheon and orientation for new Senate spouses.)

“It really is a special group and kind of a family to me,” said Frist, who emphasized its role in helping her build relationships on both sides of the aisle after her husband’s 1994 election to the Senate.

“We just like to spend time with each other,” added Sen. Bill Nelson’s (D-Fla.) wife, Grace Nelson, a well turned-out blonde in a pale blue suit and pink shirt, as she stood in the doorway to S-145 before one luncheon meeting late last month.

Indeed, the group is so low key that Nelson, the group’s current vice president, couldn’t remember the last time elections were held. Usually, she said, an informal nominating committee selected candidates for the various posts, which include vice president, treasurer, and recording and corresponding secretaries.

Given that the presidency is reserved for the vice president’s spouse, Clinton and Dole couldn’t have run against each other even if they had bothered to show up at the meetings. And attendance on the part of recent presidents has been spotty at best. Some, such as Barbara Bush, have attended religiously; others, such as current President Lynne Cheney, rarely make an appearance. The group’s highest-profile semi-regular is Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, whose husband is Senate Minority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), while its de facto dean and institutional memory is Peatsy Hollings, wife of retiring Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.).

The group has a constitution and bylaws, but elections, held every two years, are not a competitive process, members say, with positions filled based on whoever expresses interest. The vice presidency, however, is reserved for an individual married to a member of the party not in the White House. “We are so casual,” Nelson said.

In fact, said Assistant Senate Historian Betty Koed, the group has never been an official part of the Senate, and as a result, there’s never been a complete history of it.

“It’s just in recent times that we’ve begun to archive their files,” said Koed. She added that the Senate Historical Office is currently processing documents, including a series of minute books, to be sent to the National Archives.

Still, it could be years before a fuller picture of the spouses’ activities will be accessible, noted Koed, given that Senate records sent to the archives typically are under a 20-year seal.

Where the Girls Are

No member interviewed for this piece could remember ever seeing a male spouse in attendance at the weekly Tuesday meeting, though some men do come to the first lady’s luncheon held in the Russell Caucus Room. Senate Restaurant’s Teresa Reed, who has served the spouses for the past 14 years, threw back her head and howled when asked if any of the 11 Senate male spouses had ever made an appearance. “No, never,” she laughed.

(In the early 1980s, Gene Hawkins, husband of then-Sen. Paula Hawkins (R-Fla.), was reported to have attended one of the weekly luncheons, but said then that he had no plans to return.)

While the attendees remain uniformly female, the group’s name has undergone a series of permutations over the years in response to the changing times.

“As far as I’ve seen in documents so far, it seems that up through the ’60s they were called the ‘Ladies of the Senate.’ It seems like in the early ’70s they started to be more the ‘Senate Wives’ … but in the ’80s they start to informally call it [Senate Spouses],” said Koed.

After the 1992 “Year of the Woman” saw the number of female Senators swell to a then-record six, the name ‘Senate Wives’ was no longer deemed acceptable by some in power. Then-newly elected Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) led the charge in demanding that the appellation be changed.

“She wrote a letter to the organization and said she didn’t think that was appropriate,” said Patricia Kempthorne, wife of former Sen. and now-Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne (R). After what Kempthorne remembers as a 30- to 35-minute discussion, the group voted to change its name to the Senate Spouses.

“Barbara Boxer really wanted us to change the name so her husband could come, and he’s never come,” added Simpson, who still drops by the weekly luncheons whenever she’s in town.

As for the group’s future significance, to those women whose lives have been inseparably linked by the organization, it remains a very necessary apolitical reprieve from the often-frenetic life of a Senate spouse — even in an age where many work outside the home and several are male.

“I feel very honored to be a part of that club, and I appreciate the fact once a member always a member,” said Kempthorne, now first lady of Idaho. “I don’t think we are ever going to outgrow or out-technologize the need for people just to know each other.”

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