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Remembering Bob McCown

My mentor and friend Bob McCown, retired Head of the Special Collections Department in the University of Iowa Libraries, died on March 31st of this year.  To remember Bob on what would have been his 76th birthday–November 21st–I share the eulogy I gave at his memorial service last spring.

Robert McCown-Dinner photo

Robert A. McCown (1939-2015)

Bob McCown was the first person I met in Iowa when I came for my job interview in 1992. On that April day twenty-three years ago, he was waiting at the bottom of the escalator in the Cedar Rapids Airport holding a sign that read: “Iowa Women’s Archives.” I was full of wonder about this new place that might become my home—amused at the scale of the airport, and charmed by the fact that we were driving past cornfields as soon as we left the parking lot. All during that drive to Iowa City, Bob told me about the history of Iowa—how it was settled, the Mormons who passed through with their handcarts, and other stories I have long since forgotten. What stayed with me was the sense of this kind, soft-spoken man who had such deep knowledge of and affection for his home state.

Bob was Head of the Department of Special Collections at that time. He had earned a master’s degree in history from the University of Iowa in 1963, taught high school history for a few years, and earned his library degree from Illinois before returning to Iowa in 1970 for a position in the University Libraries.

Bob was hired as Manuscripts Librarian at a time when the new fields of social history, ethnic history, and women’s history were emerging. He began traveling across Iowa in the early 1970s, intent on acquiring sources that would make this new scholarship possible. But the recent student demonstrations in Iowa City had roused suspicion about the University of Iowa. So Bob shined his shoes, cut his hair, and put on a coat and tie to allay the fears of outstate residents. In his quiet and considerate way, he tried to persuade potential donors of the significance of their papers to history. He modeled his collecting on progressive institutions such as the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. In addition to the usual political papers, he sought the records of environmental groups, social action organizations, and women. Sometimes he was successful, other times not. But the seeds he planted in those early years continued to bear fruit five years later, ten years later, or even two or three decades later.

Over the decades, Bob built a solid foundation for the study of Iowa history. He acquired farmers’ diaries, Civil War letters, merchants’ account books and railroad records. He solicited manuscripts by Iowa authors, and built on the already strong literary holdings of the department. Special Collections has continued to build on the groundwork Bob laid over three decades.

Of course, collection development was not Bob’s only work. He organized symposia, published articles, and edited the journal Books at Iowa and the newsletter of the Ruth Suckow Association. (He had a particular affinity for Suckow, not least because she hailed from his hometown of Hawarden.) Bob contributed to the archival profession through his service on the Iowa Historical Records Advisory Board and his longtime involvement with the Midwest Archives Conference. And he brought history home by presenting talks on a various topics to local organizations and clubs.

But I keep coming back to Bob’s efforts to preserve Iowa history, because I believe that was his greatest achievement. Bob’s vision of what Iowa history could be led him to seek out those aspects that that had been neglected by archivists and historians alike. When women’s historians began asking for sources in the ‘70s, Bob combed the Special Collections stacks searching for documents by and about women.

And then he went a step further. He began consciously seeking out women’s history. He acquired the papers of Minnette Doderer, the League of Women Voters of Iowa, and the Iowa Nurses Association. He had the foresight to contact Mary Louise Smith before she rose through the ranks to become the first female chair of the Republican National Committee; when Smith finished her term she made good on her promise to send her extensive papers to the University of Iowa, about which Bob was especially proud.

When Louise Noun suggested in the early ‘70s that the University Libraries beef up its holdings of women’s historical writings, Bob arranged to meet with her in Des Moines, initiating a relationship that would eventually lead to the creation of the Louise Noun – Mary Louise Smith Iowa Women’s Archives at the University Libraries.

Bob’s careful plans for the archives, together with the papers of women politicians, artists, nurses, and lawyers he had gathered over two decades formed the core of the Archives when it opened in 1992. Equally important was the support and guidance he gave me.

When I began work as the first curator of the Archives, I was pretty green, especially when it came to donor relations and collection development. But Bob was a great supervisor! He taught me everything, from how to write a letter and make a cold call to a potential donor, to the more mundane details—like how to get a car from the motor pool and fill out the countless travel forms. And then there were the finer points he’d learned from his own experience. For example, when you’re out in the field and driving a University vehicle, do not have dinner at a supper club—even if it’s the only restaurant in town—because someone is sure to notice the car with the University seal parked out front and report this “inappropriate” activity by a state employee.

Bob guided me with gentle nudges and taught me by example, as when we visited donors together. Our weekly meetings always included some family talk, a shared laugh or two, and some musings about the topic of the day. I was grateful to have such an empathetic boss who treated me with respect and was interested not only in what I did on the job but in my family and my life outside work. Through the years I worked with Bob, I learned a great deal from him, not only about history, but about how to treat one’s colleagues and staff.

Bob contributed immeasurably to Iowa history but also to the lives of those of us fortunate enough to be around him.  Bob’s knowledge of Iowa history was broader than the Missouri, deeper than the Mississippi, and a lot more solid than the Loess Hills.  Iowa history is richer for his contributions.  And all of us who knew him are richer for his friendship and his affection.

–Kären M. Mason, April 4, 2015



Light and Letters: An Iowa Woman’s Experience of Tuberculosis

Celebrate women’s history month with refreshments and conversation! Come join us for “Light and Letters: An Iowa Woman’s Experience of Tuberculosis,” a talk by Jennifer Burek Pierce, PhD, on Wednesday, March 25 at 4:00pm.

Prof. Burek Pierce will discuss the importance of reading and letters from home for Marjorie McVicker Sutcliffe during her treatments in a tuberculosis sanatorium, drawing on materials in the Judith Sutcliffe papers here at the Iowa Women’s Archives. An Associate Professor in the School of Library and Information Science, Burek Pierce writes about publishing trends and their implications for libraries, past and present. Her research considers what happens when ideas once shared face-to-face are committed to print. Her books include What Adolescents Ought to Know: Sexual Health Texts in Early 20th Century America (UMass Press, 2011) and Sex, Brains, and Video Games: A Librarian’s Guide to Teens in the 21st Century (ALA Editions, 2009)



“Unbossed and Unbought”: Shirley Chisholm and the Voice of the People

Sunday, November 30 is the 90th anniversary of the birth of Shirley Chisholm. The following blog post was written by Anna Bostwick Flaming.

Chisholm stamp

Image via

Shirley Chisholm, the “unbought and unbossed” African American congresswoman and 1972 Presidential candidate from the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn is the subject of a 2014 limited edition stamp.  Chisholm’s candidacy was remarkable not only because she presented Americans with the prospect of a Black woman in the Oval Office, but also because she promised to wrest electoral politics out of the hands of the rich and powerful.


Chisholm campaign flyer

Chisholm campaign flyer.  Lolly Eggers Papers, Iowa Women’s Archives

Shirley Chisholm viewed her campaign as an effort that would give voice to “all Americans.”  In particular, Chisholm opposed incumbent President Richard Nixon as the embodiment of a “minority government” only interested in “representing the wealthy and vested interest.”  The investigation of the Watergate scandal that began with the June 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters and the administration’s cover-up prompted congressional legislation intended to curb abuses in campaign finance.  These reforms were substantially dismantled recently when, in a 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court in McCutcheon struck down limits on the total sum that donors may contribute to candidates and parties.  Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer took the rare step of reading his dissent from the bench:  “Where money calls the tune,” he cautioned, “the voices of the people will not be heard.”  His turn of phrase suggests not just a warning about the future, but also an understanding of the past.  Just months before Watergate, Shirley Chisholm had used similar language to encourage small contributions to her 1972 Presidential campaign in donation envelopes promising to “give voice to that vast segment of the country that has never had national exposure before.”


Chisholm contribution envelope

Chisholm contribution envelope.  Lolly Eggers Papers, Iowa Women’s Archives

 In 1968, Chisholm had become the first African American woman elected to Congress.  In Congress, as she had in the New York State Assembly, Chisholm concerned herself with the legal, educational, and employment concerns of women and minorities.  She was a founding member of both the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Women’s Political Caucus.  During her presidential campaign, Chisholm told Roxanne Conlin – a Democrat who would later run for Iowa governor in 1982 and for the U.S. Senate in 2010 – that 1972 must be the year that “women, blacks, brown, the young, the old, activists for social change, and just people who are tired of reading the election results before the votes are counted – are going to prove that our candidates and our policies and our government are not the exclusive preserve of the financial community, the political establishment and the opinion polls.”  Chisholm wanted to direct her energies on behalf of the concerns of the people.  She offered her outspoken advocacy on behalf of civil rights legislation, the Equal Rights Amendment, and a minimum family income; she opposed wiretapping, domestic spying, and the Vietnam War.

For many, Chisholm’s candidacy signaled a broader movement for change in America.  In 1972 New York Magazine columnist Richard Reeves warned, “It’s happening in Cedar Rapids, folks.”  Edna Griffin, who in the summer of 1948 had led a successful campaign to desegregate a Des Moines lunch counter (more than seven years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama), was “quite surprised” by the support for Chisholm in Iowa.  Griffin, Roxanne Conlin, and Louise Rosenfield Noun, a prominent feminist and civil liberties activist and, later, a cofounder of the Iowa Women’s Archives, spearheaded efforts for Chisholm in Des Moines.  They established a state headquarters for Chisholm supporters in a private residence on Eleventh Street in order to reflect Chisholm’s preference for neighborhoods and community rather than “big business.  Noun later recalled that supporting Chisholm was one of the “most memorable” political adventures of her life.  In Iowa City, Chisholm supporters organized in the days leading up to the precinct caucuses.  They managed to join with the McGovern caucus to elect Sylvia T. Johnson, a Chicago native and part-time member of the Augustana College Psychology Department, as a Shirley Chisholm delegate.


chisholm unbossed and unbought

Image courtesy the Lolly Eggers Papers, Iowa Women’s Archives

In campaign literature, Chisholm supporters proclaimed that the presidential candidate transcended categorization as “a woman, and a Black Woman at that;” rather, Shirley Chisholm was a beacon of “new hope for our system.”  Recent events remind us that we must still reckon with the work of the “unbought and unbossed” candidate.


Election Day! Politics in the Archives

ike day napkin upright

As the site of the Iowa caucuses as well as the home state of countless policy makers and political activists, Iowa is rich with electoral history. As we cast our votes today, we reflect on the decades of campaigning that has brought some of the 20th century’s biggest political names to Iowa, as well as the effect of Iowans in shaping national political life. Above is a napkin from “National Ike Day,” a 1956 event celebrating the 66th birthday of President Dwight Eisenhower. In a letter to event organizer Anna Cochrane Lomas the next day, Eisenhower commented, “I experienced the warm feeling that I was among good and true friends.”

Below are a few more letters and photos that tell stories of the connections between politics and Iowa.


roosevelt eleanor to wilma belden-collins

The work of Iowa newspaper columnist and editor Wilma Belden-Collins caught the eye of former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who wrote to her about the United Nations General Assembly. Following her husband’s death, Roosevelt became the first chairperson of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, and remained the U.S. representative to that Commission even after stepping down as chair in 1951, the year of the above letter.


bush xmas

Iowa Women’s Archives co-founder Mary Louise Smith was the first woman to chair the Republican Party. Above is a card from the Bush family, written two years before George Herbert Walker Bush’s first term as Vice-President to Ronald Reagan. During his own presidential campaign ten years later, Bush sent a letter to Smith, thanking her for her support: “There is no way I can properly express my gratitude – Barbara’s, too. You worked hard, you stood at my side when the going got tough, and you were with me, your hand on my shoulder, when things looked very gloomy indeed.”


clinton gore in cr 1992

hrc note

The papers of state representative Kathleen Halloran Chapman capture a smiling moment with Bill Clinton during his campaign stop in Cedar Rapids in 1992. A handwritten note to professor Suzanne Bunkers the following year comes from first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, and reads: “Thank you for sharing your ideas and suggestions. Bill and I welcome your thoughts. They will be carefully considered as Bill begins to implement his agenda for change in America. Best wishes, Hillary”


Want more? Visit the Iowa Women’s Archives!  We’re open weekly Tuesday-Friday, 10:00am to noon and 1:00pm to 5:00pm.

For materials on Iowa women’s fight to secure the right to vote, see our digital collection on Women’s Suffrage in Iowa.


Celebrating LGBT History Month


This post was written by Christina Jensen, Student Assistant in the Iowa Women’s Archives and graduate student in the UI School of Library and Information Science.

October is LGBT history month!  To celebrate, we’re taking a look at some of the eye-catching cover art of Better Homes and Dykes, from the Jo Rabenold papers.





Better Homes and Dykes was a newsletter published in Iowa City by the Lesbian Alliance between 1972 and 1982. Issues featured editorials, satirical essays, and community information. In the inaugural issue, a welcome message proclaimed:

Who are we? We are those of you that have been working women, old maids, housewives, unmarried aunts, women’s libbers, students, career women, et al. No longer content with being in the Shadows of the Feminist Movement, much less shadows to each other […] Better Homes and Dykes is for all lesbians here in Iowa City and elsewhere.

LGBT periodicals like Better Homes and Dykes were often created by independent publishing collectives, targeted a narrow regional distribution, and often existed for short periods of time. Better Homes and Dykes is one of the many examples of independent LGBT press preserved in the Iowa Women’s Archives. These documents were critical tools in early LGBT community building and remain important artifacts of LGBT history, capturing the birth and growth of the gay rights movement.

Want more? Visit the Iowa Women’s Archives!  We’re open weekly Tuesday-Friday, 10:00am to noon and 1:00pm to 5:00pm.

A list of collections related to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Iowans can be found here.



Ivory Winston, Iowa’s Own First Lady of Song

Ivory Winston Green Brochure-1

This post was written by Christina Jensen, Student Assistant in the Iowa Women’s Archives and graduate student in the UI School of Library and Information Science.

Known as ‘Iowa’s own first lady of song’, Ivory Winston was born in 1911 in Ottumwa, Iowa. The daughter of a Baptist pastor, she grew up in a strict religious household and remembered church as the place that awoke her interest in music and fostered her developing talent. As a teenager, she dreamed of becoming a concert pianist, though she confessed to The Ottumwa Courier that she had little interest in vocal work.


Ivory Winston Newspaper-1

Winston made her professional debut in 1946 to great acclaim, having waited until her mid-thirties to begin her musical career, a decade into her marriage and well after the birth of her two children, Berta Lou and Byron. A 1947 article in The Ottumwa Courier addressed this balance of family and career, describing Winston as a ‘busy singer’ and ‘a busy housewife and mother’, and asking, “Can marriage and a career mix?” Winston raised musical children who often joined her on stage during performances close to home.


Ivory Winston Truman-1

In 1950 she performed for President Truman on his birthday during a stop in Iowa and led the crowd of 20,000 in a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’. Despite her professional success, the Winston family faced racial prejudice in Ottumwa, including a neighbor’s unsuccessful petition to bar the Winston family from moving into a new neighborhood. Winston’s son Byron later recalled the petition going unsigned, and the family moving into the neighborhood without incident.


Ivory Winston State poster-1

Winston’s voice was widely praised throughout her life, yet no known recordings of her singing survived.  The Des Moines Sunday Register put out a call in 2006 to its readers to keep an eye out for these missing performance recordings. If you have a recording of Ivory Winston, please notify the Iowa Women’s Archives!

Want more? Visit the Iowa Women’s Archives!  We’re open weekly Tuesday-Friday, 10:00am to noon and 1:00pm to 5:00pm.

A list of collections related to African American women in Iowa can be found here


Louise Liers, World War I nurse

This post, by Christina Jensen, appeared on the Iowa Women’s Archives Tumblr this summer, and has since been featured on NBC news.

On June 28th, 1914, Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo by Yugoslav nationalist Gavrilo Princip. One month later, war broke out across Europe between two alliance systems. Britain, France, Russia, and Italy comprised the Allied powers. Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire constituted the Central powers. As war raged abroad, the U.S. wrestled with the politics of neutrality and intervention. In April of 1917, President Wilson was granted a declaration of war by Congress. The United States thus officially entered the conflict alongside Allied forces. 

To mark the occasion of the World War I centennial, we’re remembering Iowa women whose lives were shaped by the war.

One such woman was Clayton-native Louise Marie Liers (1887-1983), an obstetrics nurse who enrolled in the Red Cross and served in France as an Army nurse.

Before her deployment, however, Liers was required by the American Red Cross to submit three letters “vouching for her loyalty as an American citizen.” All nurses, regardless of nationality, were similarly required to provide three non-familial references testifying to this effect. While questions of loyalty and subversion are exacerbated in any war, America’s domestic front was rife with tension driven by geography, class, and ethnicity that raised fears and stoked national debate in the years leading up to America’s engagement in the Great War.

Louise Liers's war identification. Louise Liers Papers, Iowa Women's Archives, The University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City.

Louise Liers’s war identification. Louise Liers Papers, Iowa Women’s Archives, The University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City.

Arriving in 1918, Liers was stationed in the French town of Nevers where she treated wounded soldiers.  During this time Liers wrote numerous letters home to her parents and brother describing her duties and conditions of life during the war.

In a letter to her brother, featured below, Liers described her journey to France from New York City, with stops in Liverpool and Southampton.

Louise Liers’s letter to her brother, describing her journey from Iowa to Base Hospital No. 14 in France. Louise Liers papers, Iowa Women's Archives, The University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City.

Louise Liers’s letter to her brother, describing her journey from Iowa to Base Hospital No. 14 in France. Louise Liers papers, Iowa Women’s Archives, The University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City.

When Liers arrived in 1918, Nevers was only a few hours away from the Allied offensive line of the Western Front.  She was assigned to a camp that served patients with serious injuries and those who required long-term care.  Liers noted in a 1970 interview that, by the end of the war, as fewer patients with battle wounds arrived, her camp began to see patients with the “Asian flu,” also known as the 1918 influenza outbreak that infected 500 million people across the world by the end of the war.

In letters home, and in interviews given later, Liers described pleasant memories from her time in service, including pooling sugar rations with fellow nurses to make fudge for patients.  Nurses could apply for passes to leave camp and Liers was thus able to visit both Paris and Cannes.  In an interview Liers recalled that, serendipitously, she had requested in advance a leave-pass to travel into town for the 11th of November, 1918. To her surprise, that date turned out to be Armistice Day, and she was able to celebrate the end of the war with the citizens of Nevers.

“…devised such tortures and called it warfare…”

Along with her cheerier memories, however, Liers’s papers also describe the difficulties of caregiving during war.  She described Nevers as a town “stripped of younger people” due to the great number of deaths accrued in the four years of war.  In later interviews Liers offered many accounts of the grim surroundings medical staff worked under, from cramped and poorly equipped conditions, to unhygienic supplies, such as bandages washed by locals in nearby rivers, which she remembered as “utterly ridiculous from a sanitary standpoint…they were these awful dressings. They weren’t even sterilized, there wasn’t time.”  Due to the harsh conditions and limited resources, nurses and doctors gained practical knowledge in the field. Liers recalled frustrating battles to treat maggot-infected wounds before the nurses realized that the maggots, in fact, were sometimes the best option to keep wounds clean from infection in a field hospital.

On a grimmer note, Liers wrote to her parents the following:

“As I have told you before, the boys are wonderful- very helpful. When I see their horrible wounds or worse still their mustard gas burns or the gassed patients who will never again be able to do a whole days work- I lose every spark of sympathy for the beast who devised such tortures and called it warfare- last we were in Moulins when a train of children from the devastated districts came down-burned and gassed- and that was the most pitiful sight of all.”

By the time the “final drive” was in motion, Base Hospital No. 14 was filled with patients to nearly double capacity, and doctors and nurses had to work by candlelight or single light bulb. Liers’ wartime service and reflections suggest a range of emotions and experiences had by women thrust into a brutal war, remembered for its different methods of warfare, inventive machinery, and attacks on civilian populations.

Army nurses on parade, c. 1918. Louise Liers papers, Iowa Women's Archives, The University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City.

Army nurses on parade, c. 1918. Louise Liers papers, Iowa Women’s Archives, The University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City.

Liers worked in France until 1920, and her correspondence with friends and family marks the change in routine brought on by the end of the war.  With more freedom to travel, Liers and friends toured throughout France, and like countless visitors before and after, Liers describes how enchanted she became with the country, from the excitement of Paris to the rural beauty of Provence.

Following the war, Liers returned to private practice in Chicago, and later Elkader, where she was regarded as a local institution unto herself, attending over 7,000 births by 1949.  She was beloved by her local community, which gifted her a new car in 1950 as a sign of gratitude upon her retirement.


Want more? Visit the Iowa Women’s Archives! We’re open weekly Tuesday-Friday, 10:00am to noon and 1:00pm to 5:00pm.

A list of collections related to Iowa women and war can be found here.