March is Women’s History Month and it’s time to celebrate. Women and girls alike have made huge differences in the world around us, whether we realize it or not. Iowa is not short in its history of inspirational and amazing women. From as far back as 1869 through today, Iowa women are proving to the world that being a girl is no fault.
Arabella Mansfield, born Belle Aurelia Babb, was a native of Burlington, Iowa. Mansfield is known today as being the first female lawyer in the United States. She and her husband, John M. Mansfield, studied law and applied for admission to the Iowa bar in 1869. Less than one year after Mansfield became a lawyer, the Iowa legislature amended its statute to allow women and minorities to practice law in the state. However, after becoming certified, she worked at Simpson College, Iowa Wesleyan University and DePauw University, teaching English, political science, history, aesthetics and music history. Mansfield also served as dean of the school of art and dean of the school of music while she was at DePauw. In addition to her practicing law and teaching, Mansfield gave public lectures on women’s rights and was prominent in many women’s suffrage groups in Henry County. After retiring in 1911, she retired and died at the home of her brother in Aurora, Illinois that August. In 1980, Mansfield was inducted into the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame.
Carrie Chapman Catt
Carrie Chapman Catt was born in Ripon Wisconsin, and moved to Charles City, Iowa when she was seven years old. Arguably one of the most well-known Iowa women, Catt was a key figure in the woman suffrage movement, succeeding Susan B. Anthony as the president of the National Woman Suffrage Association. After the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920, she organized the League of Women Voters, which educates young people about voting, protects eligible voters and attempts to reform money in politics. Before Catt became the nationally-known suffragist, however, she graduated from Iowa State University at the top of her class, as well as the only female of her class. After college, she went on to become one of the first women appointed as superintendent of schools. In 1902, Catt helped organize the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, an alliance that eventually incorporated similar associations in 32 countries across the globe. Catt died of heart failure in 1947, but her legacy has continued on through all the things she accomplished in her life.
Born and raised in Iowa City, Iowa, Emma Harvat was not only the city’s first female mayor, but the first female to become mayor of a town with more than 10,000 people in the nation. Before that, Harvat was the first woman on the Iowa City city council. During her three-year term as mayor, Harvat cleaned up Iowa City’s bootlegging and gambling problem, began paving the roads and opened the first juvenile hall in the city. Harvat also began separating male and female offenders in the city’s jail. Harvat died in 1949, and was inducted in the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame in 2007.
Ola Babcock Miller
Ola Babcock Miller, originally Viola Babcock, was born on a farm in Washington County in 1871. As a young woman, Miller worked as a school teacher, before running for the office of Secretary of State in 1932. She won, and was re-elected in 1934 and 1936. With winning this office, Miller became Iowa’s first female secretary of state. As secretary of state, Miller became known as “The Mother of the Iowa Highway Patrol” because she founded the Iowa State Patrol in August 1934. The patrol, in its first few days, received applications from 5,000 men in hard times because of the Great Depression. Miller died in 1937, and the patrolmen she organized honored her greatly.
Lou Henry Hoover
First Lady Lou Henry Hoover was born in Waterloo, Iowa in 1874. Her father, hoping to have a boy, was prepared to teach his son all about the outdoors. However, having a daughter did not stop him from doing that; he took Hoover fishing and camping. He also taught her about plants and animals. It was her love of the outdoors that led her to be the first woman geology major at Stanford University, where she met her husband and the future president, Herbert Hoover. Throughout their marriage, the two Hoovers travelled to China, Japan, Australia, Egypt, Russia and England. After moving back to the United States, Hoover became very involved with the Girl Scouts, serving first as a troop leader, and later as the mind behind Girl Scouts fundraising by selling cookies (thin-mint and shortbread cookies were first sold in 1936). Hoover died in early 1944 in New York City.
Carolyn Pendray was born in 1881 in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. After she finished school, Pendray served as county superintendent of the schools in Henry County, Iowa for seven of her twenty years in educational work. She became interested in the government after getting married and retiring from education, and from that point she became the first woman to serve in both the Iowa House and the Senate. She served in the House for one term, and later moved on to serve on the Senate for two terms. Throughout her political career, Pendray supported many bills that promoted the equality of women, as well as the reform of property and inheritance laws and how they applied to women. After retiring, she spent eight years in Mount Pleasant before dying in 1958.
Mamie Eisenhower was born in 1896 in the town of Boone, Iowa. During her adolescence, she moved between Texas and Colorado, spending her winters in San Antonio and the rest of the year in Denver. When she was 19 years old, she married Dwight D. Eisenhower, the military mind that would one day be behind D-Day. Her husband became president in 1953, and ended his terms of presidency in 1961. Eisenhower became known as the first president’s wife to be publicly kissed by her husband after his Inauguration ceremony. While she was First Lady, Eisenhower inspired many trends, including how she styled her bangs and a color called “First Lady Pink.” Later in her life, Eisenhower received many awards, most notably the “Nation’s Foremost Heart Volunteer” from the American Heart Association; the Iowa Award, of which she was the first female recipient; and “Military Wife of the Century” from Richard Nixon. Eisenhower died in 1979, but her influence has lived on.
Mildred Wirt Benson
In Ladora, Iowa in 1905, author Mildred Wirt Benson was born. Benson knew from an early age that she wanted to be a writer. She was the first person to receive her Master’s degree in journalism from the University of Iowa, and later went on to write over 130 children’s books, including the first 23 books of the Nancy Drew series. Similar to Nancy Drew, Benson wrote under pseudonyms for the majority of her books. Her other series included The Brownie Scout series, Dana Girls Mystery Stories, The Girl Scout series, The Doris Force Mystery Stories and The Ruth Fielding Stories. At one point in her life, Benson churned out 13 Nancy Drew books in one year, all while working full time on a newspaper. Benson died at the age of 96 in 2002.
Edna Griffin was born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1909, and moved to Des Moines, Iowa with her husband shortly after their marriage. After being denied service at a drug store, Griffin inspired pickets and a civil lawsuit that resulted in Griffin only receiving $1 in in compensation, angering her further. She went on to hold a sit-in at the drug store, and all her boycotting continued for two months. Even after this incident, Griffin continued to protest long into her life, even being arrested in Nebraska while protesting nuclear weapons. She was the only grandmother in the group. Griffin died in 2000, and is now known as the “Rosa Parks of Iowa.”
Virginia Harper was born in 1929 in Iowa. She was one of four African American women to integrate Currier Hall at the University of Iowa in 1946. Her advocating for equality did not start there, however. When she was only 11 years old, Harper desegregated her local theatre. Harper led a life of many firsts: first African American woman to serve on the State Board of Instruction and first African American woman appointed to the Iowa Board of Parole. She was a lifelong member of the NAACP, serving as president of the Fort Madison branch. She was inaugurated into the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame in 1992, and received the Martin Luther King, Jr. Achievement Award posthumously in 1998. Harper died in 1997, but her legacy reminds everyone what one person can do.