The XX Factor

Why Is There a President of the Congressional Freshmen Spouses?

Today Politico ran a profile of ” Vivien Scott: House Spouse .” Despite that being among the least enticing headlines I’ve seen lately, the premise for the piece grabbed my eye: Scott has been elected president of the “congressional freshman spouses.” Who knew that group had an official organization, let alone a presiding officer? It’s a little unclear from the article what function the group serves beyond the social, and  Scott doesn’t exactly make a compelling case for why first-year congress-spouses need their own organization: “Asked what sets the freshman spouses of the 112th Congress apart, her response was immediate: ‘Kids. We have a lot of kids.’ ”

But, infact, there’s a rather long tradition of congressional spouse associations-for a long time, of course, they were hen’s clubs. (Dan Dahlkemper, husband of Kathy, D.-Pa., was the first man to hold the presidency of the congressional freshmen spouses, to which he was elected in 2009.) The Congressional Club, an all-female group that used to be just spouses but now includes congresswomen, has been around since 1908 . The group now organizes the occasional luncheon and rents out its swanky-but-stuffy looking clubhouse on New Hampshire Avenue, and has been publishing a cookbook  of legislator’s family recipes since 1927 .  (One wifely wag writing for the first edition included a recipe For Preserving a Husband-some ” insist on keeping them in pickle, while others keep them in hot water, even poor varieties may be made sweet, tender and good by garnishing them with patience.”)

In the 1950s, the Senate Wives’ Club boasted 50 or so active members, and was a social lifeline for women who’d uprooted their lives and families after their husband’s elections. But as a Newsweek piece from last fall reported, the (renamed) Senate Spouses club has only about a dozen members; perhaps that’s because spouses are less interested in defining themselves by their mates these days (though that’s hard to do if you’re married to a pol). More concretely, thought, far fewer spouses move to Washington these days. It’s much more common for congressmen to keep their families based in their home states. Which is a blow to bipartisanship; as George Packer reported in a New Yorker piece last year about the Senate’s collective dysfunction: “Friendships across party lines are more likely among the few spouses who live in Washington. After Udall joined the Senate, last year, he was invited to dinner by Alexander, because Jill Cooper Udall and Honey Alexander had become friends through a women’s social club. It remains the only time Udall has set foot in the house of a Republican senator.”  And so, as retrograde as these organizations might seem, it strikes me as a shame that they’re less important to Washington social life; if your wife is on a social committee with your congressional opponent’s husband, it’s probably a lot more awkward to, say, filibuster her legislation out of existence.