A BRIEF CENTENNIAL HISTORY OF THE DES MOINES BRANCH OF AAUW
In 1914 Iowa was a rural state populated largely by first and second generation immigrants and by descendants of colonial settlers in the East. Des Moines, with a population of 50,000, had strong ethnic communities and wide socio-economic strata. Education for women had not attained the level of that for men. Women of privilege attended Grinnell College, Drake University, and Iowa University, which had recently been accepted into the American Collegiate Association (ACA). These grateful graduates, motivated to give back to their community and achieve leadership opportunities, established a Des Moines chapter of the American College Alumnae in 1914. The ACA had been founded in 1882 in Boston. Mrs. Frank Herriott was Des Moines’ first president.
While the attention of much of the United States population was focused on the Great War in Europe, the controversial women’s suffrage movement was raging in metropolitan areas at home. President Wilson challenged women to raise money to support the war effort. The women of the ACA balanced generous support for Liberty Bonds, Peace talks, and Belgian relief with support for advancing educational opportunities for women.
After World War I the International Federation of University Women was founded. In 1924 the Iowa state division of the newly named American Association of University Women was founded here at Hoyt Sherman, with Mrs. J. F. Schermerhorn, a past Des Moines president, chosen the first state president.
Dues were $.10 and their catchy motto was “More courage and eagerness in interpreting the objectives of our National Association through fellowship, international study, educational program, and community activities.”
By 1926 the Des Moines AAUW Branch boasted 100 members, meeting monthly on Saturdays in some of Des Moines largest homes, such as the Salisbury House of Edith Weeks. Under the leadership of President Mrs. John Hughes, study groups for art, philosophy, literature, and international relations were organized. Their influence in Des Moines was raised by the completion of a citywide art survey, for one example.
AAUW was again drawn into the war effort in the 1940s. Members gave air warden training and speeches at War Bond Rallies. They joined in the Bundles for Britain project and supported the Red Cross. Despite social backlash against them for disrupting the makeup of the traditional family and the armed forces, more than 150,000 women joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corp at its training center in Des Moines. A picture from the national AAUW archives shows 28 AAUW members of the WAAC gathered on August 20, 1943, at Fort Des Moines. Two of our current members proudly served in the WAVES: Betty Durden, in the personnel office at the Naval Air Training Bases in Pensacola, FL, and Win Kelly in San Francisco, where she was present at the founding of the United Nations.
By 1964, at its half century mark, the Branch had 565 members. College-educated women, caring for their young families at home, were eager for the
outside stimulation of community betterment projects and supporting the educational advancement of other women.
In the 70’s and 80’s, AAUW reached its peak in Des Moines. Its members, no longer entirely relegated to their homes, took on leadership roles in the community. They challenged limitations in educational and career opportunities for women, rallying behind passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. They mentored one another. Des Moines’ own Mary Grefe, was national AAUW president from1979-81 and Educational Foundation president from 1985-89. Alice McKee was EF president from 1989-93, and later the International Federation of University Women’s assistant treasurer. Kathleen Laurila Wood was a Midwest regional director, and all three women served as State presidents. Other state presidents from Des Moines included Mabel Hughes, Helen Woods, Gladys Horgen, Elizabeth Barbour, Margaret McCollum, Betty Durden and Sandra Keist-Wilson. Branch interest groups ranged from multiple book discussions to child and adolescent development, to international relations, to groups tackling national AAUW themes such as “Women Searching for Self.” We organized Iowa State Fair Art projects for children, junior high conservation field trips, volunteering in public schools and the fledgling Living History Farms. We hosted popular book and author dinners and an American-Soviet Peace Walkers potluck called “A Celebration of Friends in the Iowa Spirit” in 1988. To celebrate 75 years, Janet Fay opened her home to host a lovely and well-attended brunch in the fall of 1989.
In the 90s we shared with our community the AAUW reports “Shortchanging Girls; Shortchanging America, 1992” and “Hostile Hallways, 1993” We co-sponsored “Avenues Toward Equity; Iowa Roundtable in Educational Equity,” to help educate the public .
We worked with residents of the Iowa Correctional Institution in Mitchellville by offering educational programs, donating magazines, facilitating the taping of story reading by mothers for their young children at home, and helping one resident, Kathy Tyler, obtain her college degree.
Through a bequest by a Branch member, and the leadership of Margaret McCollum, the Lois Dell Child Development Scholarship endowment was established at the Des Moines Area Community College. It has provided 16 scholarships and now totals $11,085 in value.
Members joined the Iowa “Women’s Equity Day” march to the Capitol on August 26, 1995, in celebration of the 75th anniversary of women’s suffrage.
Memorable EF fundraisers included a dinner featuring author Kesho Scott, and a seminar on maturing called “Take Charge of Your Tomorrow.”
We joined with other AAUW members from around the state to lobby for women’s and educational issues, such as funding for preschool, support for reproductive choice, and with Kappie Spencer’s leadership the successful inclusion of wives’ names in phone books.
Members volunteered at the spring Iowa Public Television fundraising festivals and the fall Planned Parenthood book sales.
To reflect on the UN Women’s Conference in Beijing, China, we co-sponsored a seminar called “What Happened and Will It Make a Difference?” on November 4, 1995.
We supported the YWCA and helped sponsor their “Women of Achievement” events. Some of our members worked to pass the unsuccessful Polk County Charter for Metropolitan Government.
Five-Star Branch recognition was received in 1995 and 96 for our overall program.
In the new millennium young women were pursuing careers, and had noticeably less time to devote to clubs and organizations. Whether or not they realized it, their successes came on the shoulders of, and because of the groundbreaking work of, the women who preceded them in the struggle to attain equal opportunities for women and girls in all areas of life. Our membership has dropped, but includes 15 50+ year members. We have 5 interest groups and are organized with a Leadership Team of 8, and a good newsletter that keeps us all informed. We hold six general meetings, plus some fun summer excursions. We have actively supported the Young Women’s Resource Center and the $tart $mart AAUW career workshops at Grand View College. We helped establish the successful Latinas al Exito program for girls in the Des Moines Public Schools, under Mary Harlan’s initiative. Through the years, now and into the future, our mission continues to advance equity for women and girls through advocacy, education and research.