Leona Wells, the first-ever female congressional staffer, deserves better recognition than history has so far accorded her. She was born in St. Clair County, Illinois on Aug. 2, 1877 and grew up in Iowa, where her father edited a small town newspaper and did various printing projects. Typesetting was her first job. She moved on to be suburban reporter for a newspaper in Des Moines.
Wells made Cheyenne, Wyoming her home in 1889. The young Republican activist soon cast her first vote in the 'Equality State' and often volunteered as an election precinct clerk. Stenographer for a merchandising company, she doubled as secretary of the Wyoming GOP after her boss, Francis Warren, became party chairman.

In 1900, Warren was elected a U.S. senator and hired Wells at the Committee on Claims, which he chaired. She began working there on January 14, 1901. Her first task was preparing an index of more than fifty thousand pensions and other indemnities dating from the Civil War. Congress awarded her a $500 bonus for this stellar achievement, which would be published and revised annually.

Wells married Jack McLaughlin, livestock trader for a Chicago company, in November 1901. During recesses, she attended classes at the University of Chicago and later took a law course in Washington, DC.

In 1905, Sen. Warren, now Chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs, made Wells its chief staffer. At the time, the Senate employed some four dozen women, mostly as stenographers and messengers, but she was the only one in a more professional position. Wrote a newspaper, "she became the first woman employee of the Senate to be placed in charge of the affairs of a big committee" and that "every bit of legislation in any way affecting the army... has passed through her hands." She was an "acknowledged expert in matters related to military law and legislation."

By 1911, Wells was Assistant Chief Clerk of the Committee on Appropriations, chaired by Sen. Warren. Though entitled to be on the Senate floor, she chose not to, consenting herself with listening and conveying suggestions to her boss from just outside the chamber when bills she had crafted were being debated.

A profile -- "Uncle Sam's Highest Paid Woman" -- described her as "probably the most envied woman in government service today." With a $4500 annual salary, she made $1000 more than the next-highest paid woman, the Confidential Secretary to the Director of the Mint. For comparison, Senators at the time were paid $7500 per year. The newspaper noted "her good looks, her good temper, her abounding good sense, her genuine joy in her work." Understandably, Wells said she "adores" her job.

Wells worked a year for another Republican, Patrick Sullivan, appointed to the Senate on the death of Francis Warren in 1929. Her last day of employment was November 30, 1930. She retired to Los Angeles during the 1930s and died there on June 12, 1942 of coronary thrombosis. Her grave is at the Riverside Cemetery in Marshalltown, Iowa, residence of her brother's wife. The Wyoming State Tribune eulogized her as "among the most brilliant women Wyoming has produced."

Michael Zak blogs at www.grandoldpartisan.com and is author of Back to Basics for the Republican Party, a civil rights history of the GOP.