eras of emma: the emma goldman clinic through four decades
eras of emma: the emma goldman clinic through four decades
Viola Nesfield Owen papers
by Audrey Altman
Preserving the history of poor and rural women is a mission of the Iowa Women’s Archives, but it can be challenging because these women rarely leave detailed records of their lives. That’s why we were so excited to receive the papers of Viola Nesfield Owen, donated by Gary Whitehead. The collection contains dozens of letters between his grandmother, Viola Nesfield Owen, and her family, written from 1921 to 1963.
Viola was a high-spirited woman who saw her family through many hardships, and her letters give insight into how Midwestern women dealt with family, work, and financial hardships.
Viola Nesfield was born in 1896. She grew up in Waterloo, Iowa, with her father, step-mother and two younger half-sisters. In 1921, Viola planned to marry Vern Owen. Since Vern was divorced, their engagement was somewhat scandalous for Viola’s family. Yet Viola and Vern were not to be deterred. They eloped and moved to Wisconsin. This is when the collection of letters between Viola Nesfield Owen and her family begins. The first few years of letters from the Nesfields to Viola are filled with appeals to return home and anxious parental advice.
In 1924, Viola’s father wrote: “When I am at work I lots of times get worried about you. I wish you would begin to look forward for you are sure to get some rainy days. You know life is not all sunshine. Try to save all you can.” (June 20, 1924)
But Viola did not move home. Instead, she and Vern started a family. Her children are by far the most common topic of her letters. My favorite of Viola’s letters is dated August 14, 1928. It was written from her hospital bed, shortly after she delivered her first child, Robert Harrison. In big, messy letters that practically fall off the lines of the page, she wrote, “How I wish you could see him. He is so cute and ‘fat as butter.’”
It’s hard not to admire Viola, who was sometimes called “Ha! Ha!” for her unquenchable good spirits. Her daughter, Betty, nearly died of kidney disease when she was two years old. Viola made a pact with God that if He spared Betty’s life, she would never complain about her hardships. It is evident in her letters that Viola tried hard to keep this promise, even though her family experienced dire poverty through the 1920s and 1930s.
In 1927, the Owens moved into a tar paper shack in Janesville, Wisconsin, with no electricity or running water. Yet Viola’s letter bearing the news to her family reflected no bitterness. She mused, “We ought to save money here. No place to spend it.” (October 9, 1927).
During the Depression, Viola’s husband Vern struggled to hold a job. Viola worked as a pianist, piano and accordion teacher, and as a transcriber for the WPA Braille Project. Despite Viola’s contribution to the family income, they often struggled financially, and Viola’s optimistic resolve was tested. On January 13, 1933, she wrote: “I would be so glad if Vern could make a dollar a week. Now I don’t mean to complain and I always said I never would if Betty love could only get better and the rest of us keep our good health, but if I don’t write very soon you will know Vern is still jobless… Soliders and Sailors Relief are getting me a pair of shoes today. Isn’t it awful to have to depend on somebody like that but what can you do? I was walking on the ground.”
But the next month, Viola had found something to celebrate again: “I was so extravagant I ate a whole orange all by myself. Ha! Ha!” (February 2, 1933) During the 1940s, Viola found new independence. She started working for Parker Pen in Janesville, WI, and wrote excitedly about her various administrative duties at the factory. She also divorced her husband, but continued to care for him, especially after he suffered a stroke in 1948. Viola and her family continued to write each other, and the collection of letters extends to 1963.
Audrey Altman, a graduate student in the University of Iowa School of Library and Information Science, processed the Viola Nesfield Owen papers while working in the Iowa Women’s Archives in 2011/2012.
By Christine Vivian, SLIS student and IWA student assistant
One of the lovely surprises of The Iowa Women’s Archives is the number of collections which contain holiday cards, such as the Shirley Briggs Papers. Briggs, an artist and naturalist, created a new hand-drawn card every year for over 50 years. Receving one of these works of art year after year must have been a wonderful tradition for her friends and family. To carry on this tradition, we share some of those cards with you here, with our hopes for a happy holiday season.
To see an exhibit about Shirley Briggs’ work and her friendship with Rachel Carson, please stop by the University of Iowa Sciences Library before January 7th.
In 1950, Joyce Horton was a junior at the University of Iowa studying speech pathology. She was active in the Foreign Students Association, a group she really enjoyed. A few weeks before Thanksgiving she wrote a letter to the newspaper in her hometown of Osage, Iowa, suggesting that residents invite these students to spend Thanksgiving weekend in their homes, some 160 miles from Iowa City.
As Joyce later recalled, “The letter was printed. Some Osage folks liked the idea–and so did the foreign students. Twelve of them came with me to Osage that year and 44 came my senior year.”
With the support of the local Rotary International group, Osage International Weekend became a tradition.At the time of Joyce Horton Beisswenger’s death in 2002, the program was still actively inviting international members of the university community to experience the holiday in the homes of local families.
After graduating from the University of Iowa in 1952, Joyce Horton attended Yale Divinity School, where she met her future husband Don Beisswenger. They were active in the civil rights movement in Chicago in the 1960s before moving to Tennessee, where she earned a degree in social work.
A scrapbook documenting Osage International Weekend is among the papers of Joyce Horton Beisswenger (1930-2002) in the Iowa Women’s Archives.
I am currently a senior at the University of Iowa and am majoring in history. To get a general idea of the kind of work a historian can do I decided to get a part-time position in the Iowa Women’s Archives (IWA).
The activities that I have been involved in this job so far have consisted of moving boxes of historical records and helping to process material to be put in thearchives. I have worked on two collections. One dealt with the League of Women Voters of Johnson County (LWV-JC). I found it difficult trying to find some kind of order in which to put the material. I benefited from this exercise because I really had no idea what the League of Women Voters was about, but by the end of sorting everything out I was able to get some knowledge on different aspects of the LWV.
The second collection I looked at was of some material donated by Salvador Lopez. It consisted of information on Antonia and Frederico Lopez. I had a better idea of how to work with this collection because it was not as big as the LWV. In working with this collection I learned how to compose a finding aid. While looking through the material I became exposed to the lives of different people who I could relate to. Much of the collection consisted of correspondence between Antonia and Frederico Lopez with their siblings in Mexico. The letters are written in Spanish and being a native Spanish speaker I found this part of the job to be fun because I was able to use my native language and learn the style of writing a letter in Spanish. I have written a few emails to Spanish speaking friends outside of the United States using the beginning style of many of the letters in this collection. There is a certificate of naturalization found in the collection that belonged to Frederico Lopez. This certificate made me wonder how my parents and sibling got their certificate of naturalization. In the collection of Antonia and Frederico getting a certificate is shown as a process that took quite some time. The courses that I have taken at the University of Iowa also helped in understanding some of the material. For example, I was able to see that the Mexican Revolution was a push factor for the Lopez family to leave Mexico and that the jobs offered in Iowa were a pull factor into that state. What I discovered from the letters was that communication by Antonia and Frederico Lopez with family back in Mexico was hard to maintain, which caused some concern from certain individuals in the family. I learned that in several occasions the family in Iowa sent money back to the family in Mexico. Health was also a main concern in many of the letters. Also the discussion of becoming naturalized was presented in one of the letters.
The hardest part of this process was to keep from researching every piece of information. I learned that this collection plays a part with other collections in the Mujeres Latinas Project in the IWA. The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) is also a collection that is located in the IWA. The fact that all these collections are tied together helps me develop a better story about Antonia and Frederico Lopez.
I was told that the finding aid is only supposed to give a glimpse of the material that can be found in the collection and is not meant to be a replacement. I have learned that the finding aid is a tool that is used as reference to the material in a collection and that it can be a very long process for an archivist to do. The organizational skills that I have been learning in this job have really helped me outside of this experience. This job has given me more appreciation for archives and archivists because after working on these two collections I have seen and learned how much work is needed in processing material. Another cool part of this job is the fact that I have been able to access parts of the library which in the past had always been a mystery to me.
–Froilan Orozco, Fall 2011
The Iowa Women’s Archives and University of Iowa Libraries marked Women’s Equality Day—August 26th—by unveiling a new digital collection documenting the decades-long campaign by Iowa women to gain the right to vote. The Women’s Suffrage in Iowa Digital Collection is the culmination of a yearlong project to select and scan photographs, letters, and other primary sources from the University Libraries, the State Historical Society of Iowa, and Iowa State University’s Special Collections Department. This collection is now available through the Iowa Digital Library at http://digital.lib.uiowa.edu/suffrage. It offers researchers, teachers, students, historians, and genealogists a centralized starting point for further investigation into this significant period in Iowa’s history.
“This is a great example of the power of digitization. “Women’s Suffrage in Iowa” brings together documents scattered through collections in the Iowa Women’s Archives and at other institutions and makes them available to a wide audience within and beyond the borders of Iowa,” said IWA curator Kären Mason. “We hope the digital collection will entice Iowans to visit the Iowa Women’s Archives, the State Historical Society, or Iowa State. Since we were only able to include a fraction of the rich suffrage collections in Iowa there are many treasures yet to be uncovered.”
In addition, the Iowa Women’s Archives has created an online exhibit that provides a brief introduction to Iowa’s suffrage history and points to local and state suffrage resources including websites, print materials, personal collections, newspaper archives, and contacts in various counties. The exhibit “Iowa’s Suffrage Scrapbook: 1854-1920” is accessible at http://sdrc.lib.uiowa.edu/exhibits/suffrage/. Among the digitized items is sheet music for a song written by Helen Cowles LeCron as Iowa geared up for a statewide referendum on women’s suffrage in 1916:
When suffrage takes the Hawkeye State, Hurrah! Hurrah!
The world will call us wise and great, Hurrah! Hurrah!
So lend your smiles and best applause, Hurrah! Hurrah!
To help the worthy Suffrage Cause, Hurrah! Hurrah!
“When Suffrage Takes the Hawkeye State” by Helen Cowles LeCron
Alas, the optimism of these lyrics was not borne out. The suffragists’ hopes were dashed in what was generally viewed as a corrupt election, heavily influenced by the liquor interests that feared a female electorate would bring about prohibition. Iowa women had to wait another four years to vote, until the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified on August 26, 1920. A map showing “irregularities” in the 1916 referendum and hundreds of other documents are now available online, thanks to a grant from the State Historical Society, Inc.
“By presenting the exhibit in the form of a scrapbook, we tried to evoke the feeling of doing historical research, paging through an old volume looking for clues to what people thought and did as they fought for the vote,” said Christine Mastalio, a graduate student in the University of Iowa’s School of Library and Information Science who created the exhibit and digital collection with another SLIS student, Kayla Pollock.
The Iowa Women’s Archives (http://www.lib.uiowa.edu/iwa) holds manuscript collections that chronicle the lives and work of Iowa women, their families, and their communities. These personal papers and organizational records date from the nineteenth century to the present. Together with oral histories, they document the activities of Iowa women throughout the state and beyond its borders. The Iowa Women’s Archives is open to the public and located on the third floor of the University of Iowa’s Main Library. Questions may be directed to email@example.com or to staff at 319-335-5068. Or find the Archives on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/#!/IowaWomensArchives
Program and photographs of productions of The Nutcracker from the records of the Dieman-Bennett Dance Theatre of the Hemispheres.
Dancers Edna Dieman and Julia Bennett opened their dance studio in 1951 at a rented room in the Cedar Rapids YWCA. Ten years later they formed the Dance Theatre of the Hemispheres and built a repertoire in classical ballet, Indian and Spanish dance, tap, jazz, and historical dance.
For more information about the company and its productions, go to
by Christine Mastalio
This just in….
We have just processed a large addition to the Iowa Federation of Women’s Club (IFWC) records. The IFWC was founded in 1893 to help women’s clubs from across the state to communicate and collaborate. The Iowa chapter was the first state federation to join the national one—the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GWFC). By the 1980s, the GFWC was considered the largest and oldest non-denominational women’s organization in the world.
Women in the organization campaigned for literacy, conservation and civic responsibility, but there was also a serious peace movement in the IFWC following World War I.
A county and city federation scrapbook compiled by Blanche Wingate in 1923-1924 (Box 20) reveals how club women actively campaigned for peace in the interwar years.
Selected headlines from the scrapbook read: Peace by Any Plan, Demand Clubwomen; Women Told it Is Their Duty to End Strife; Mrs. Armstrong Urges Women to Advocate Peace; Next War Means Civilization’s End…
Other clippings in this particular scrapbook highlight a Daughters of the America Revolution event, a fashion show and meetings of the executive officers of the club.
We’ve put up a small exhibit in the Iowa Women’s Archives reading room in conjunction with our upcoming Women’s History Month event about the history of the Lamaze method of natural childbirth. The exhibit includes several Lamaze books from the 1970s from the papers of Patricia Hillard, a leader in La Leche League International from the 1970s through the 1990s. Also in the exhibit are a baby bonnet dating from the early 1900s, and an unusual glass breast pump.
The breast pump came to the Iowa Women’s Archives with various artifacts and historical records from the Heritage Room of the University of Iowa College of Nursing. A tag accompanying the breast pump says that it was purchased in New Orleans in 1750. If anyone knows how this early breast pump worked, we’d like to hear from you.