Important Women in Iowa History

Carrie Chapman Catt, born Carrie Clinton Lane

It’s easy to find information about women making a difference today, but what of the women who began paving the way centuries ago?

Modern day Iowa has heroes such as Shaun Johnson (gymnastics), Marilyn Adams (Farm Safety 4 Just Kids), and Janet Dailey (novelist with 325 million books in print). The women who opened the doors for the above women are just as impressive.

Carrie Chapman Catt (1859-1947)

Catt is one of many women who could be included in the Women’s Hall of Fame for many different states. Born in Wisconsin, Catt spent time in California and Iowa. But it was when she returned to Iowa that her life’s work would get underway. She joined the Iowa Women’s Suffrage Association as a lecturer and writer. Before long, she was working with the organization on a national level, where in 1900, was elected to replace Susan B. Anthony as president. She founded the League of Women Voters, still active today. She was able to watch her efforts be rewarded when President Woodrow Wilson signed the Nineteenth Amendment into law, giving women the right to vote.

Virginia P. Bedell (1895-1975)

A college degree isn’t always the only way to open doors. Bedell became the first female county attorney in Iowa through on-the-job training. She was also the first female in the U.S. to sit on a parole board. According to the Iowa Commission on the Status of Women, Bedell created a program called “Assigned Children” to provide for needy children of veterans.

Minnette Doderer (1923-2005)

Doderer spend 15 years serving in the Iowa legislature. During that time, she fought for laws related to women’s issues, public health, and prison reform that helped improve the status of women in the eyes of the law.

Mary Louis Smith (1914-1997)

Forty days prior to Rosa Parks’ well-known bus ride, Smith was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus. She was eighteen years old. Smith went on to great things as the first woman to chair the Republican Party. She helped found the Iowa Women’s Political Caucus.

Jessie Field Shambaugh (1881-1971)

If you were ever a 4-H member, send a thank you to Shambaugh. A teacher of rural children, Shambaugh organized groups of children into after school activities with competitions in agricultural activities like soil testing and corn judging. According to, she created a pin with a three leaf clover and the letter H on the leaves. The H stood for “head,” “hands,” and “heart.” The groups continued to grow and gain nationwide attention.

Mabel Lee (1886-1985)

Lee believed physical education was just as important for girls as it was for boys. The “weaker sex” stereotype was alive and well and most people thought physical activity was unbecoming to women. As a high school student in Iowa, she started girls’ basketball and as a college student, taught gymnastics to high school students. She continued working for physical education, not just for those who excelled and could win honors for the school, but for everyone. She was more interested in good sportsmanship and the health benefits of staying fit than other sports minded individuals of her time.