Iowa History
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Iowa History

15 Female Firsts in Iowa

2018 was a remarkable year for women in Iowa.

Kim Reynolds became the first Iowa woman to win a governor’s election. Abby Finkenauer and Cindy Axne were the first Iowa women elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, joining the state’s first female U.S. senator, Joni Ernst, as part of Iowa’s congressional delegation. A record 45 women will take their seats in the Iowa Legislature later this month.

“Women are now beating down the doors and discussing how we need to keep going,” said Mary Ellen Miller, former executive director of 50–50 in 2020, an Iowa organization that prepares women to run for office. “It’s been an uphill struggle, but our new tagline is ‘hard won, not done.’”

In many ways, the past year’s steps toward equality are part of a march that started much earlier. Here are 15 “female firsts” from Iowa’s recent and distant history:

Arabella Mansfield — When Mansfield passed the bar examination in 1869, she became the country’s first woman lawyer. She did not attend law school but studied for two years in her brother’s law office in Mount Pleasant. She was also a champion for women’s suffrage, chairing the first Iowa Suffrage Association state convention in 1870.

Arabella Mansfield, the country’s first woman lawyer. (Photo: State Historical Society of Iowa)

Gertrude Durden Rush — Born in Texas, Rush moved to Des Moines in 1907 and became the first black woman admitted to the Iowa Bar. After the American Bar Association denied her membership, she and several black male lawyers created the National Bar Association in 1925. She remained the only black woman to practice law in Iowa until the mid-1950s.

May Francis — Although she had wanted to become a physician, the high cost of medical school persuaded Francis to become a teacher instead. She started her career in a one-room school in Bremer County, followed by stints in schools across the state before she was recruited in 1919 to be the state inspector of rural schools. She visited nearly 1,800 of Iowa’s 10,000 one-room schools before her election in 1922 as the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, becoming the first Iowa woman to win statewide election.

Carolyn Pendray — Born in Mount Pleasant and raised in Maquoketa, Pendray was the first woman to serve in the Iowa Legislature, from 1929 to 1936. In that role, she co-sponsored a bill that permitted a wife to hold property of her own, exempt from seizure for debt. At the time of her death, in 1958, she was the only woman to have served in both chambers of the legislature.

Ola Babcock Miller — One of Iowa’s most distinguished public servants, Miller of Washington County was elected as Iowa’s first female secretary of state in 1932. But she is best known as the “Mother of the Iowa Highway Patrol,” which she helped organizes in 1934. A building on Iowa’s Capitol Complex is named in her honor.

Mildred Wirt Benson — While Benson was the first woman to graduate from the University of Iowa with a master’s degree in journalism, in 1927, the Ladora native is best known for writing many of the Nancy Drew books, under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene. Benson created the teenage sleuth as a strong female character and role model for three generations of women. Benson wrote more than 130 books in all.

Willie Stevenson Glanton — Dedicated to law, human services and civil rights, Glanton of Des Moines racked up a long list of firsts: the first woman to be an assistant Polk County attorney, the first African-American woman in the Iowa Legislature, the first woman and first African-American elected to the Iowa Chapter of the Federal Bar Association. In the mid-1950s, she became the second African-American woman lawyer in Iowa.

Willie Glanton, pictured in the front row, third from the right, was the first woman to serve as an assistant Polk County attorney and the first African-American woman to serve in the Iowa Legislature. (Photo: State Historical Society of Iowa)

Janet Guthrie — In 1960, Guthrie earned a degree in physics from the University of Michigan and worked as an aerospace engineer. By the early 1970s, she followed her interest in motor racing and became the first woman to compete in the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500. Born in Iowa City, Guthrie’s helmet and driver suit from the Indy 500 are in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Linda Neuman — After earning her law degree in 1973, Neuman moved to Davenport to join a local law firm and later became its first woman partner. She served as a judicial magistrate and a district court judge before her appointment as the first woman to serve on the Iowa Supreme Court.

Mary Louise Smith — Born in Eddyville, Smith rose through the ranks to become the first woman to chair the Republican National Committee, from 1974 to 1977. Afterward, she remained active in politics and worked in a wide range of civic, government and community affairs.

Bonnie Campbell — Born in Norwich, New York, Campbell moved to Des Moines and earned a law degree at Drake University. Later, she became the first woman to chair the Iowa Democratic Party and, in 1990, became Iowa’s first female attorney general. In 1997, Time magazine named her one of the 25 most influential people in America.

Marsha Ternus — Hailing from Benton County, Ternus practiced law for 16 years before she was appointed to the Iowa Supreme Court in 1993. In 2006, she made history when the court’s members chose her as Chief Justice, the first woman to serve in that role.

Mary Sue Coleman — When Coleman was named president of the University of Iowa in 1995, she became the 18th person and first woman to hold that office. She left Iowa in 2002 to become the University of Michigan’s first female president. She grew up in Cedar Falls, graduated from Grinnell College and was once ranked by Time magazine one of the 10 best university presidents in the nation.

Peggy Whitson — Born in Mount Ayr, Whitson is the first woman to command the International Space Station, a feat she accomplished twice. During her NASA career, she broke numerous records, tallying more time in space (665 days) than any other woman worldwide or any other American, becoming the oldest woman astronaut (57) and completing the most spacewalks by a woman (8).

Peggy Whitson was the first woman to command the International Space Station. (Photo: NASA)

Wendy Wintersteen — In 2017 Wintersteen, a Kansas native, became the 16th president of Iowa State University, the first woman to fill the role in the institution’s history. Her selection caps a 40-year career spent at Iowa State, where she has served in numerous capacities, including professor of entomology and dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Iowa Department of Human Rights Director San Wong said that all of Iowa’s female “firsts” share some striking attributes: they shared credit for their achievements with parents, teachers and mentors; they took risks; they learned from adversity; and they helped pave a path for others to follow.

“Their power as role models can shape aspirations, choices, and beliefs of what women can achieve,” Wong said. “Iowa is filled with real-life examples of accomplished women who pave a path for future generations.”

Jeff Morgan, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs



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Iowa Culture

Iowa Culture


The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs empowers Iowa to build and sustain culturally vibrant communities by connecting Iowans to resources.