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Lessons from trailblazing Iowa women — teaching the next generation to unite, not divide

Historic women's township meeting - no date available
An early photo of Farm Bureau leaders participating in a township meeting. No date available.

“Don’t sit down in the meadow and wait for the cow to back up and be milked - go after the cow!” Those who knew the late Margaret Sloss knew she carried that phrase around with her on a scrap of paper, and pulled it from a pocket when inspiration called. An author, teacher and longtime Iowa resident, Sloss spent years chasing the proverbial “cow,” becoming the first woman to receive the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from Iowa State University in 1938. Her battles to overcome adversity and academic stereotypes, common in her day, garnered Sloss admiration from the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt and Carrie Chapman Catt. They realized Dr. Sloss was forging a new path for women in Iowa and around the country, and they wanted her work to ignite the passions of other gifted women who toiled away in obscurity.

As Iowa Farm Bureau marks its 100-year milestone in 2018, I was thinking of what life was like for women, all those years ago. The accomplishments and grit of Sloss and other small town Iowa women who lived 100 years ago is something that should inspire us, still. Because today, as newscasts glorify disparaging comediennes who cut down other women over politics and one negative story after another fills our ‘Inbox,’ a quick glance at our rear-view window shows us that Iowa history is full of women who worked hard envisioning a path that brings us together, not apart.

Charlotte Mohr was another one of those trailblazers. A registered nurse, farmer, conservationist, speaker and longtime Iowa Farm Bureau leader, Charlotte cut a formidable path in the 1970’s. Charlotte spent most of her life in Scott County, but her community work took her all the way to Africa, where her farming and nursing background helped start a life-saving garden seed exchange in faraway Natal.

Before that, there was Ada Hayden, the first woman to earn a PhD from Iowa State University. She was a botanist, research artist, photographer and poet who fought for prairie preservation in the 1940’s. Born on a farm near Ames, Ada was known for roaming the forgotten roads of rural Iowa in her Model A Ford coupe, which mysteriously always had a boat lashed on top. She was always touring, driving, scribbling, beautifully documenting native Iowa plants. Hayden’s dirt-under-the-fingernails work ethic led to having prairie preserves and an herbarium named in her honor at Iowa State.

Born a southern Iowa banker’s daughter, Ruth Buxton Sayre was another formidable woman. She would go on to become the ‘First Lady of the Farm,’ even though a life of raising livestock and growing crops wasn’t her original dream. Ruth graduated college from Simpson in 1917 with a degree in German, but soon fell in love with a farmer and was struck by farm women’s isolation and despair. Her plans, first made from her kitchen table at her Warren County farm, forged a new path for women in her county, and beyond. Her commitment to ensuring representation of women everywhere helped start the first Farm Bureau women’s group in her township in 1920. It wasn’t long before her skills brought her leadership positions in organizations around the globe, including a stint with the United Nations, the American Friends Service Committee and too many to document here.

There are so many more examples of brave women, proud women, gifted women who led with quiet reserve and passion; their dignity and accomplishments stand the test of time. These were women who would’ve scoffed at our selfie-obsessed way of life, where every outfit we wear and meal we eat is documented and shared to garner ‘likes’ and earn judgement from people we’ll never meet. These women didn’t work for approval. They didn’t work for fame (Sloss passed up Eleanor Roosevelt’s invitation to the White House and Chapman-Catt’s invitation to speak at a national conference). I say, why not honor their path by taking time today to remind our own daughters that whether we live on a farm or in the city, there are still plenty of ‘cows’ worth chasing.

By Laurie Johns. Laurie is Iowa Farm Bureau's Public Relations Manager.