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Telling the stories of Iowa women

The Iowa Women's Archives at the University of Iowa is celebrating its 25th year of helping tell the story of Iowa women in agriculture and rural life.
The Iowa Women's Archives at the University of Iowa is celebrating its 25th year of helping tell the story of Iowa women in agriculture and rural life.

For 25 years, the Iowa Women’s Archives (IWA) at the University of Iowa has told an oft-forgotten tale. It's  the story of Iowa women and their role in shaping the world, the state and its culture.

From now until Dec. 29, the IWA will celebrate its anniversary with a special exhibit, "25 Collections for 25 Years: Selections from the Iowa Women’s Archives."

In addition to the special exhibit, a celebration is planned for Nov. 10-11. The weekend includes tours, a gala and a public symposium highlighting ways the archive has been used through the years.

The 25 collections making up the special anniversary exhibit are but a sampling of the archive of around 1,200 collections that include personal papers and organizational records dating from the 19th century to the present.

“We don’t write history,” says IWA curator Kären Mason. “We gather the information for others to write it. In many cases, the records in our archives are the missing pieces that have been hidden from history.”

The archives run the gamut from diaries, letters, photos and photo albums to scrapbooks, 4-H record books and Farm Bureau women’s club minutes.

“The women’s clubs were an important part of the fabric of society from the 19th century to the late 20th century,” says Mason. “They tell how local communities were structured, how women helped bring the community together and supported each other.”

Clubs like the Willing Workers, the Best Ever Club and the Friendly Neighbors Club brought women together outside the home. They gathered to discuss the weather, gardening, eggs and chickens, clothes and children. They made quilts and exchanged recipes.

“They cover many decades and many phases of the life cycle,” says Mason. “They supported each other through raising children and losing spouses. One club’s story tells of helping the spouse of a club member through loss and grief.”

In 1998, the IWA launched the Rural Women’s Project. With a $40,000 grant from the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, Doris Malkmus was hired to collect the oral histories of farm women. For two years she traveled the state, talking to women at libraries, clubs and quilting bees. She carried an exhibit case that held glass canning jars filled with documents, ribbons and other artifacts that helped visualize her mission of “preserving rural women’s history.” The effort resulted in an array of collections of rural life in nearly all of Iowa’s 99 counties.

Today, the archive is used by professional, amateur and student historians of all types and quests. The stories of immigrants, missionaries, educators and social activists are there for the perusing.

The archive includes the pap­ers of 4-H founder Jessie Field Shambaugh, as well as some of Iowan Ruth Sayre’s archives.

Known as the “First Lady of the Farm,” Sayre helped organize the women’s branch of the Farm Bureau, when Farm Bureau was still in its infancy. As president of the Associated Women of the American Farm Bureau and Associated Country Women of the World, Sayre served on President Dwight Eisenhower’s Farm Advisory Committee, raising the role of farm women to national and international prominence. In addition to the IWA, many of Sayre's works are housed at the State Historical Society of Iowa Centennial Building in Iowa City.

The archive is working to digitize records and is available to the public in person at the University of Iowa Library or online at www.lib.uiowa.edu/iwa/.

Queck-Matzie is a freelance writer from Fontanelle.