Today, at the Iowa Women’s Archives commemorate one of our founders, Mary Louise Smith! Smith was born Mary Louise Epperson on October 6th, 1914 in Eddyville, Iowa. She became involved with the Republican Party in the 1950s and quickly rose through the ranks. In 1974, just after Watergate, she was appointed as the first woman to lead the Republican National Committee. Among her many accomplishments, we’re most grateful for Smith’s part in establishing the Iowa Women’s Archives. Her papers, documenting a long political career, were among the first on IWA’s shelves.
Catherine Rymph was one of the first student hired to work in the Iowa Women’s Archives when it was established in 1992. Rymph earned her PhD in history at the University of Iowa in 1998 and is now a professor of history and director of undergraduate studies at the University of Missouri. Her experience processing the papers of Mary Louise Smith had a profound impact on her:
The Mary Louise Smith papers and the Iowa Women’s Archives changed my life!—or at least they changed my career.
In the summer of 1992, while a graduate student in History at the University of Iowa, I took an extra job working at the IWA (before the archive even opened). I spent the next year and a half processing collections what at the time were the nearly empty stacks. By far the largest collection I worked on was the papers of Mary Louise Smith, one of the IWA’s prescient founders. The collection is rich in correspondence and other documentation of Smith’s many years as a Republican Party official and as an active participant in the 1970s women’s movement. Through the process of sorting through and organizing Smith’s papers, I became
particularly fascinated by her self-identification as a Republican feminist. So fascinated, in fact, that I switched my Ph.D. research focus from the 19th to 20th centuries and wrote a dissertation on women in the Republican Party. I later published Republican Women: Feminism and Conservatism from Suffrage through the Rise of the New Right (University of North Carolina Press, 2006), which was the basis of my early career as a historian. Although I visited a number of other archives for my research, I never would have landed on the topic at all without that formative experience in Smith’s papers.
— Catherine Rymph, University of Missouri, 2017
This post is a part of the Iowa Women’s Archives’ 25th anniversary exhibit: 25 Collections for 25 Years: Selections from the Iowa Women’s Archives on display until December 29th at the Main Library Gallery. Gallery hours are available on the Main Library website.