Sheila Wellstone

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Sheila Wellstone was an extraordinary political wife. And her death in a plane crash on Oct. 26, with her husband, Paul, and their daughter Marcia Markuson and three campaign workers, has deprived welfare mothers, battered women and their children of one of their most passionate and skilled advocates in Minnesota and Washington.

Sheila Ison Wellstone was a Kentucky native, described as shy by some. She had dropped out of college to put her husband through graduate school and, after he became a Carleton College professor, she worked as a librarian and reared their three children. She also was an organizer, in her own way.

By the time Paul Wellstone won the upset race for Senate in 1990, the only defeat of an incumbent that year, Sheila had become a passionate voice on many key issues. Her roots in Kentucky are credited with being a catalyst for her husband’s advocacy for Appalachian coal miners, for instance. And she had won national recognition for her own work on domestic violence.

Within Minnesota, she worked to increase the number of battered women’s shelters, and went herself to the opening of every new one. An Oct. 30 profile of her in the Minneapolis Star Tribune quoted Beverly Dusso, executive director of the Harriet Tubman Center in Minneapolis, as saying the once-shy girl from Kentucky would stride into a shelter dining room, sit down with the women there and “talk by the hour.”

Through her advocacy, Dusso said, Minnesota put in place an emergency one-stop call center for a battered woman who is “kept on the line until we find her a place to stay. That was all Sheila’s work and we were the first in the nation to do it.”

Sheila Wellstone: A Passionate Crusader for Children of Battered Women

As a senator’s wife, Sheila Wellstone expanded her advocacy not only on behalf of battered women but also their children. When she arrived in town 12 years ago, political activist Karen Mulhauser introduced her to the network of “women involved here in sexual assault and domestic violence.” Sheila Wellstone worked closely with them, but also with researchers on family violence and on the impact of violence on child witnesses. And she worked to get the research translated into federal programs.

In a Feb. 16, 2001, speech to the Child Abuse Prevention Studies program at the University of Minnesota, Sheila Wellstone credited many experts on the issues, including Jody Raphael of the Center for Impact Research and her “amazing research, ‘Trapped by Poverty, Trapped by Abuse.'” As a result of that work, “Paul and I were able to add the Family Violence Option waiver to the Welfare Reform Bill,” she said in that speech. The option is now used by 39 states and Guam. In dealing with victims of domestic violence, the states can now waive federal rules regarding required work, time limits, and child-support cooperation.

“It gives these women time to work on a safety plan–on putting her life and the lives of her children back together–without further risk of abuse,” she said in the address.

In her 2001 speech, she talked about the legislative proposal her husband had introduced, the “Children Who Witness Domestic Violence Protection Act,” which would help finance schools to work with children who were witnesses as well as beef up resources for child-protection workers, domestic violence advocates and police responders. That legislation is still pending.

After she and the senator visited the Betsy Macalaster Grove program at Boston Hospital, which takes a holistic and often communal approach to working with the children of battered women, a policeman giving them a ride to the airport said his officers had been greatly affected by training about children who witness violence against their mothers, enabling them to better understand the dynamics of this violence and to respond to the immediate as well as longer-term needs of parents and their children.

Linked Gun Safety with Domestic Violence Laws

Sheila Wellstone could be as caustic as her husband in harpooning some of the conservative’s policies on children. She said the 1996 federal welfare legislation, whose reauthorization this year has been postponed, needs to address the many dilemmas facing welfare mothers as they go to work. “We hear of children being left with siblings too young to care for another child and often that sibling is resentful of having to care for a brother or sister; we know that children are often let in unsafe environments or with relatives and neighbors who aren’t responsible. Where are these families when we talk about leaving no child behind?”

Another of the issues that Sheila Wellstone worked closely with Sen. Wellstone was gun safety. The couple was instrumental in getting gun-safety language into the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, banning gun sales to individuals who are under police restraining orders in domestic violence cases. Federal prosecutors used the law in late October to bring the initial charges against the alleged Washington sniper, John Allen Muhammad, whose ex-wife had told police she feared for her life and had gotten a restraining order against him in late 2000. (He got a gun anyway.)

Peggy Simpson is a veteran reporter who covered the 1970s-1980s women’s political movement. She recently returned to Washington after a decade in Central-Eastern Europe, covering the economic-political transition after the fall of communism.

For more information:

Minnesota Star Tribune–Paul Wellstone:

U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone:

Tubman Family Alliance: