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Jewell on Oral Histories

Friday, May 21st, 2010

“I grew up in Arizona and Hawaii. I first came to Washington in 1956 when my husband joined the Foreign Service. We were in-and-out of Washington from 1956 to 1985, and then settled here permanently. We were posted twice in Holland, once in Sierra Leone, Morocco, Curacao, Trinidad and Tobago, and Brazil. My husband was an economic officer and I was a tag along spouse. In those days, we couldn’t work, but we gave lovely dinner parties and brought up perfect children.

Foreign Service wives had, in my day, been very quiet because they did not want their words or actions to reflect on their husband’s work.

“When we came back to Washington, I was around 50 and no one would hire me. I had no resume or network, as I had been overseas for so many years. Saying that you gave a nice dinner party in Curacao didn’t do much for helping you get a job. My husband suggested that I start helping out the city. I started by helping to clean up our neighborhood and helping, in my small way, to bring my area of 16th Street back after the Martin Luther King riots.

“I also started doing oral histories. My first one was of foreign service spouses. Foreign Service wives had, in my day, been very quiet because they did not want their words or actions to reflect on their husband’s work. We used to be included in our husband’s efficiency reports, if you can believe that. They used to look at our dinner parties, philanthropic work, and the behavior of our children. In the end, I don’t think that stuff ever really mattered, though. A foreign service officer was successful if he was good at his job, but they wanted us to believe that our behavior mattered. Now, things are so different. Many of the spouses are men and most spouses are allowed to work, either in the Embassy, or the host country. We interviewed over 200 people and published a book, Married to the Foreign Service: An Oral History of the American Diplomatic Spouse.

“At the time, I was also involved with the Woman’s National Democratic Club. The Hatch Act prohibited me from promoting either party when my husband was a government employee. When he retired, one of the first things I did was to join the club. I came to lunches here and joined different task forces. When my foreign service spouses book was finished, I came over and did an oral history here. With the foreign service spouses, I knew nothing about oral histories, but I knew my subject. This was the opposite. I missed the women’s movement and civil rights because we were abroad, but I knew how to do an oral history. I worked to publish Democratic Women about the amazing history of this place.

“The Woman’s National Democratic Club has been around since 1922. Our building was originally a mansion designed by Harvey Page, a notable Washington architect, and built in 1892-94 for a descendent of the noted Adams family of Massachusetts. After she died, her son rented the building to senators and cabinet secretaries. We purchased the building in 1927 and started to grow the group. One of the members gave us an interest free loan and the Democratic National Committee helped us with our mortgage, the salary for the executive director, and funding our newsletter until the depression hit.

“This club has a lot of important history and gone through many changes. Eleanor Roosevelt was very involved with our work and we have had every sitting president here, expect for Clinton and Obama. In doing research for the book, one of my favorite stories about the club is about the musical Hair. When it was first screened in Washington, there was a lot of debate in the city about whether it was too racy. The club put on a special performance of the production and people resigned in protest that the club had sunk to such depths. The club has really been at the forefront of many important social and cultural issues, even if some of the membership moves a little slower. Now, my generation is the mainstay of the club, but there is a new youthful group, people in their 60’s, who are taking the lead here to move the club and its history forward.”

The Woman’s National Democratic Club is located at 1526 New Hampshire Ave NW.

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10 Comments »

  1. I met Jewell at the OHMAR (Oral History in the Mid-Atlantic Region) conference this year. Lovely woman. Keep up the good work on this website! I love the stories here.

    Comment by Amanda — May 21, 2010 @ 5:27 pm

  2. This beautiful woman is my mother, and today is her birthday! Happy birthday mom!

    Comment by Ruth — May 22, 2010 @ 12:24 am

  3. happy birhday–in california with morrisons and all wish you a happy birthday–jo margaret

    Comment by Anonymous — May 22, 2010 @ 12:52 am

  4. Thank you for this story. Jewell is a jewel – and so is her husband. And so are their "perfect children".

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