IWA preserves history of Iowa women, their families, and their communities
Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Every woman has a story. Every girl has a voice.

This is the message of the Iowa Women’s Archives (IWA) as it celebrates 25 years of preserving the history of Iowa women, their families, and their communities.

The mission of the IWA, housed at the University of Iowa, is to gather letters, photos, scrapbooks, writings, and other traces of women’s lives and make them available to students, scholars, and anyone else interested in doing research.

The Iowa Women’s Archives celebrates a quarter-century of collecting and showcasing the history of Iowa women with the exhibition 25 Collections for 25 Years: Selections from the Iowa Women’s Archives through Dec. 29 in the Main Library Gallery.

A celebration on Nov. 10–11 in the Main Library will include an open house, tours of the exhibition, and a symposium focusing on the creative ways researchers and faculty have used the collections.

Visit the IWA website for more information and to register for the symposium.

“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 IWA’s curator since it opened in 1992.

Located on the third floor of the UI Main Library, the IWA maintains nearly 1,200 collections of personal papers, records of women’s organizations, and oral histories of women from across the state.

The IWA was founded by two Des Moines women, Louise Noun and Mary Louise Smith. Noun recognized the need for a women’s repository in the 1960s while conducting research for her history of the women’s suffrage movement in Iowa. In 1990, she shared her idea with 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 include those of school teachers and farm wives.

Over the past quarter-century, the archives undertook projects focused on preserving the history of African American and rural women, Latinas, and Jewish women. The diversity of its materials sets the IWA apart from other archives.

“To have an entire repository dedicated to stories that have largely been ignored through history is empowering to girls and to women. We’ve especially seen this with the oral histories and collections gathered as part of the Mujeres Latinas Project in the 2000s, where Latina and Latino students find stories similar to their own. Here is concrete evidence that Mexican Americans have lived and worked in the state for generations—even back to the 19th century. This is in stark contrast to their absence from the standard narrative of Iowa history.”

dance party
Esther Walls hosts a party in her New York apartment in the 1960s. A native of Mason City, Iowa, Walls was the first African American female student at the State University of Iowa to be elected to the Alpha of Iowa Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. She graduated summa cum laude in 1948 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in romance languages and a minor in education. Photo courtesy of the Iowa Women's Archives.

UI professors from many departments view the collections as an opportunity to introduce students to seldom-heard voices while also teaching them how to do archival research.

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. 

“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,” says Ruiz. “Not only have Latinas been writing for an extended period of time, but they’ve been writing in Iowa.”

About 500 visitors utilize the IWA each year, says Mason. Most are UI students, but the archives are open to everyone.

A new exhibit in the Main Library Gallery attests to the many ways people on and off campus have engaged with the archives. 25 Collections for 25 Years: Selections from the Iowa Women’s Archives includes select items from the collections, along with comments by faculty, students, and others who have used the IWA.

Diane Williams, a UI doctoral student in American Studies with a focus on sport studies and gender, women’s, and sexuality studies, is writing her dissertation on the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW), an organization that oversaw championships for intercollegiate women’s athletics in the 1970s and early 1980s.

“Stories of the AIAW remain untold, limiting our understanding of intercollegiate sport history, of women’s history,” says Williams. “Using the Iowa Women’s Archives, I have deepened my understanding of the AIAW’s educationally based model for intercollegiate athletics and can animate it in my work with details gleaned from these important collections.”

Williams will talk about her research as part of a public symposium on Nov. 10–11 in Shambaugh Auditorium.