Past Times

Sir Walter Cabinet has its own traditions

Members of the Sir Walter Cabinet gather for a February 1965 meeting.
Members of the Sir Walter Cabinet gather for a February 1965 meeting. N&O File Photo

For more than a hundred years, the opening of each legislative session has coincided with the reconvening of the Sir Walter Cabinet, comprised of spouses of elected state officials. In 1965, writer Meredith Council took a look at the origins of the organization.

The fireplace on the mezzanine floor of the old Yarborough House was a favorite gathering place of wives of members of the General Assembly back in the early 20s.

It was in the days when few women accompanied their husbands when they came to Raleigh on odd years for the meeting of the Legislature.

They sat around the fire and talked about many things, among them being the current issues before the lawmakers.

Some local women sat with them, and it was a much-looked-forward-to occasion when the women renewed their friendships every two years.

It was in that informal setting that the Sir Walter Cabinet had its beginnings.

Mrs. B. H. Griffin, wife of the proprietor of the Yarborough House, sat and talked with the women. She was one of those who helped begin the Yarborough Cabinet, which became the Sir Walter Cabinet when the Hotel was opened.

It was said that Judge Heriot Clarkson called the women the “Kitchen Cabinet,” reminiscent of the days of Andrew Jackson. …

At first the women had their meetings in the apartment of Mrs. Griffin. In 1923 the group moved its headquarters to the new Sir Walter Hotel.

As the group grew, it moved into the Virginia Dare ballroom for its meetings. Mrs. Griffin remained as the leader and sponsor through the 1923 session. The N&O Feb. 21, 1965

On the occasion of its 75th anniversary gala in 1998, N&O writer Mary E. Miller highlighted the changing face of the group known as the “Fourth House.”

According to News & Observer articles published in the ’20s and ’30s, the Sir Walter Cabinet has supported, among other causes, women’s suffrage, aid for the blind and the deaf, workers compensation, better roads and highway safety and improvements of prison conditions for women. According to a 1938 article, “a referendum among the women showed a majority in favor of the sale of wine and beer in North Carolina, and their sale was legalized later by the General Assembly.”

In fact, the Sir Walter Cabinet generated nearly as many articles as their husbands did. Even through the 1960s, the cabinet’s activities were chronicled in weekly columns.

Now, ironically, when women themselves hold offices in every branch of state government, the cabinet’s purpose is mainly social. Its main group activities revolve around raising money for various state-funded projects such as the restoration of the Capitol library, the North Carolina School of the Arts, all the museums and the Woman’s Club of Raleigh. …

At the gala, most of the longtime members could not recall any group political involvement and were surprised to hear about their predecessors’ activities. …

Tradition is big with the cabinet. The governor and lieutenant governor always address the cabinet’s first meetings. There are luncheons at the Executive Mansion, trips across the state to such sites as Tryon Palace in New Bern (which the cabinet helped restore) and Old Salem. And for years there were fashion shows in which the cabinet members modeled. …

Even as late as 1983, President Mabel Barbee commented on the importance of fashion to the group.

“We all dress up. We used to always wear hat and gloves. We’ve stopped doing that, but you see a lot of nice suits, and in cold weather a lot of them come in with their fur jackets. We do not wear slacks. There’s no rule against it – but no one does it.”

In 1973, A. Ray Mathis of Charlotte, the husband of then-Rep. Carolyn Mathis, caused a furor when he attempted to join the cabinet. He sued, but not much came of the case. The N&O June 5, 1998

Mathis never joined. However, inspired by the 1973 tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King, he did offer to settle the matter on the tennis court.

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