Manuscripts from Nancy Drew author Mildred Wirt Benson, 25BA, 27MA. The dissertation of the first black woman to earn a doctorate in Iowa, Lulu Merle Johnson, 30BA, 30MA, 41PhD. Speeches on Title IX from former UI athletics director Christine Grant, 70BA, 74PhD.
Those are just a few of the historical gems housed in the Iowa Women's Archives, which for 25 years has collected and curated the letters, diaries, oral histories, and photographs of some of the state's most influential women. Housed on the third floor of the UI Main Library, the archive has grown to nearly 1,200 collections that collectively tell the story of how women have shaped Iowa's history.
To celebrate a quarter century, the archive is showcasing much of its material in a new exhibition—25 Collections for 25 Years: Selections from the Iowa Women's Archive—through Dec. 29 in the Main Library Gallery. The archives also hosted an open house and symposium earlier this month that highlighted the creative ways researchers and faculty have used the collections in their work.
"It's a wonderful resource for studying Iowa history, women's history, and the long-overlooked history of the Midwest," says Kären Mason, who has been the archive's curator since its founding. Mason says the archives, which are open to students, scholars, and anyone else interested in using the collections for research, serve about 500 people annually.
The idea for an Iowa Women's Archive was born in the 1960s, when Des Moines author and feminist Louise Noun recognized the need for the repository while conducting research for her history of the women's suffrage movement in Iowa. In 1990, she shared her idea with friend Mary Louise Smith, and the two agreed to establish an archive to record the achievements and experiences of Iowa women.
Noun and Smith were adamant that the IWA seek out the histories of groups underrepresented in archives and historical societies. Mason recalls that Noun urged her to gather the papers of African American women in Iowa, while Smith hoped that the archives would document the lives of schoolteachers and farm wives. Over the years, the archive has conducted projects featuring seldom-heard voices from Iowa's black, Latina, and Jewish communities.
Ariana Ruiz, assistant professor in the UI Department of Spanish and Portuguese, incorporates the Iowa Women's Archives into her classes on Latina and Latino narratives. She introduces students to the Mujeres Latinas collections that document the lives and contributions of Latinas and their families to Iowa history. Says Ruiz: "It's important to expose students to the Iowa Women's Archives because they often don't think about the very rich history that Iowa has in relationship to women, and specifically women of color."