The sisterhood of the traveling Betty Ann Tanner

Betty Ann Tanner throws herself unapologetically into being a congressional spouse.

Tanner, the wife of Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.), sits on four boards, including the Ford’s Theatre Board with Linda Daschle, wife of former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). Most recently, she co-chaired the N Street Village Annual Gala last week at the Newseum with Charrisse Jackson Jordan, president of Behind the Bench, the National Basketball Wives Association. Jordan’s husband is Eddie Jordan, the former coach of the Washington Wizards who was fired last November.

“I feel like I have helped women or have been a servant to all sisters in need by helping raise money for a call that gets women off the streets of Washington, D.C.,” said Tanner in a phone interview on Monday.

N Street Village supports homeless women in many ways — enrichment programs, a wellness center, an employment center and programs for day, overnight and long-term stays.

“So many people at N Street Village have opened their hearts and shown mercy to women and basically given hope to the hopeless,” she says.

Tanner travels with her husband; wherever he goes, she goes. With her husband serving as the president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, she has been all over the world: Belgium, Lithuania, Latvia, Spain, Portugal, Turkey.

Her favorite spot?


She visited the country in 2004 as part of a mission to promote breast cancer awareness.

“It’s sisters in need,” she says. “In Bulgaria they were so far behind us in the drugs they used to treat breast cancer. Many [women] were not aware how to do self-exams, and we taught them how to do those.”

She loves her home in Knoxville, but she equally enjoys living out of her Washington condo and putting herself in the mix of volunteering for causes she supports.

“I feel like I have the best of both worlds,” she says. “I can go home and relax and I can be in Washington and be involved in the center of the political world. I’ve gotten to see and experience places and people that you know are players on the world stage.”

Take President Obama. She met him and heard him speak at a recent Democratic issues conference.

“He was really very distinguished — very smart man and a very compassionate man,” she said. “I thought he had a lot of charisma, but behind that charisma was an in-depth understanding of the problems this country is facing.”

Tanner describes three types of congressional spouse.

1. Stay home in the district.

2. Live in Washington full time and have a full-time career there.

3. Play the role of a congressional spouse full time.

She falls somewhere among the three. “I balance my life with volunteer work in Washington, part-time interior design work and going home and being with family, our church and volunteer work,” she says.

While Tanner migrates back and forth between Washington and Knoxville, she stays close to her husband, visiting his office about once a month.

“I see him every night,” she says. “I travel with him. We’re usually together.”

Born in Huntingdon, Tenn., a small rural town of roughly 3,500 people, her father owned a farm equipment business and her mother was a hospital dietitian. She describes her upbringing as “hometown USA.” She grew up a few miles outside of town, riding the bus to school. The family lived on five acres and raised cows and horses. In the summertime she played with her brothers and sisters all day long.

Sisterhood has long been vital to Tanner. In high school she played basketball and was a cheerleader. At the University of Tennessee, she joined a sorority, Alpha Delta Pi, and enjoyed the perks of being part of an exclusive group of women.

“You have a sisterhood — that was very important,” she said. “Coming from a small town and going to a big college, it was good to have a small group to identify with. The sorority served as a support group.”

It was also good for double dating.

At the time, her brother was in a fraternity and had befriended a young man named John Tanner.

One day during the fall semester, Betty Ann went on a double date with a sorority sister whose date was John Tanner.

“He was just a nice guy,” said Betty Ann Tanner, who had no interest in the future congressman at the time.

Her date eventually moved to a smaller school. Her sorority sister and John Tanner dated for two years and broke up.

By spring semester, Betty Ann and John began dating.

There were no hard feelings. In fact, Betty Ann and John Tanner and the sorority sister and her husband have met for dinner in Washington, she says. Betty Ann’s original date from the double date? He married one of her sorority sisters.

Tanner ran into them a year and a half ago at a football game in Knoxville, where she sits on the board at the University of Tennessee. She also sits on the boards of two small Tennessee museums.

A lifeline for Tanner is the Congressional Club for spouses of lawmakers. She stresses that spouses can mean both male and female.

Still, not surprisingly, she sees it as a sisterhood.