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Iowa Women's Political Caucus



In February 1973, Roxanne Barton Conlin, then assistant to the Iowa Attorney General, attended the first national convention of the National Women's Political Caucus (NWPC) in Houston.  Upon her return to Des Moines she began efforts to organize a statewide chapter of the NWPC.  On June 3, 1973, approximately forty women met in Conlin's home to discuss this possibility.  A state-wide convention was planned and held in September in Ames.  Six hundred and fifty persons attended.  Workshop topics included lobbying strategies, help in running a campaign, rape laws, employment rights, welfare, and child care.  During the convention's business meeting, the membership established the structure and goals of the organization.  Among the founding members of the IWPC were Mary Louise Smith, Minnette Doderer, Jean Lloyd-Jones, Cristine Wilson, Louise Noun, Sonja Egenes, and Dagmar Vidal.

The IWPC was founded as a bipartisan organization, with the goal of providing women with a political education and increasing women's political participation and representation.  In 1973 the IWPC released a report showing that women held only 6.7 percent of all elected offices in Iowa.  The IWPC also worked for the passage of legislation which benefited women, focusing on issues such as welfare, rape, sex discrimination, sex bias in education, the rights of homemakers, and equal access to credit and insurance.

The structure of the IWPC was as follows:  A state chairwoman presided over the organization.  Statewide committees (such as Structure and bylaws, Legislation, Priorities, and Publicity) were composed of IWPC members from across the state.  Administrative decisions were made by the Steering Committee which was composed of delegates from each local caucus, "at-large" delegates from across the state, and a black and a Chicano representative.

In the early 1970s, the IWPC was composed of approximately thirteen local caucuses; by the late 1970s, there were over thirty-five local caucuses.  These local chapters had their own officers and bylaws and worked on local as well as state and national issues.  Local caucuses encouraged women to serve on local boards and commissions and to run for city and county offices.  These chapters provided women with the political education and information needed to make them qualified and confident to run for public office.  Several local caucuses published their own newsletter.

Initial enthusiasm for the IWPC was pronounced.  During its first year, the IWPC reported a membership of around 1,000 and a mailing list of approximately 2,000.  In 1974, Conlin estimated caucus membership to be around 5,000.  State and local meetings consistently reported having twice the expected attendance.

Iowa held the largest state convention in the nation in 1973, and the IWPC remained the largest state chapter of the NWPC until 1980 when it was surpassed by California and Texas.  During the 1970s, the IWPC was considered a model organization by liberal activists in the women's movement across the country.  Its early success was attributed to its bipartisan nature.

The annual legislative goals of the caucus were a major focus, and the IWPC was instrumental in the passage of significant changes in the state's inheritance tax laws (which previously required housewives and farmwives to pay taxes on joint property inherited from their husbands because they were not viewed as contributors to the estate); changes in the state's rape and sexual abuse statutes (to eliminate the provision which required corroborative testimony in rape trials, to eliminate references to victims of sexual assault in the code as "she," to protect rape victims from being questioned about their past sexual histories, and to include marital rape as a crime); the state Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) by the legislature in 1979; and legislation requiring gender balance in the composition of state commissions.

In 1973, the Iowa Women's Caucus Research and Education Center (IWCREC) was founded as a tax exempt branch of the IWPC.  As its name implies, the IWCREC focused on educational and research (rather than political) work.  The IWCREC was involved in grant-funded projects relating to welfare and the public schools.  In the late 1970s, it began a summer leadership camp for high school girls, and sponsored an ambitious series of conferences entitled "Women 2000" in nearly twenty communities around the state.

In 1974, the Win With Women Campaign Support Committee was established to raise money to contribute to women candidates.  It was separated from the IWPC in order to comply with legal requirements governing organizations that make financial contributions to political candidates; in addition, this step made contributions to the fund eligible, as political contributions, for tax credit. Although the Committee meetings and minutes were separate from the IWPC, Win With Women was governed by the Executive Committee of the IWPC, and their meetings were held on the same day in the same location--one following the other.  At these meetings, the committee decided which candidates should receive contributions, and how much each should receive, in accordance with the policies established by the IWPC membership.  In later years, a lobbyist was also paid from this fund.

Although the IWPC advocated the inclusion of women of all races and backgrounds within the organization, the precise meaning and application of this goal was a subject of continued controversy.  Some members advocated explicit affirmative action programs and the selection of delegates to represent various "special interests" within the organization.  Others felt that an open membership policy was adequate and feared the diffusion of the organization's goals.  The IWPC's efforts were criticized by some African-American women who felt that their concerns and participation were not central to the work of the IWPC.

Another ongoing controversy centered on the criteria for endorsing candidates and for contributing to their campaign funds.  During the early days, IWPC campaign contributions were limited by scarce funds.  Members debated whether the IWPC should endorse and fund any woman running for office or only those women who promoted certain women's issues.  They also considered the issue of whether or not male candidates who supported women's issues and had female employees as paid members of their campaign staffs should be eligible for IWPC endorsement and/or funds.   It was decided that male candidates could be endorsed by the IWPC but that the distribution of scarce funds would be limited to women candidates.  Later, when funds increased, male candidates were also financially supported by the IWPC.  Co-endorsements were made at times when the caucus believed that both candidates running would support their agenda.  This policy was also controversial at times, as Republican women charged that the caucus was inclined to favor Democrats.  The records reveal a great deal of discussion and concern over the issue of candidate endorsement.

The IWPC steadily declined in membership throughout the 1980s and 1990s, although its influence at the legislative level continued to be significant, and the annual auction was a successful fundraising event through 1990.  The caucus continued to sponsor workshops, lobby in Des Moines, and network with organizations having common concerns.  Local caucuses ceased to exist as the 1980s wore on; state conventions shrank in size and scope; the state newsletter was published less frequently; and the enthusiasm and energy that had marked the early days was no longer evident.  The 1996 member handbook lists approximately 170 members.  The organization disbanded in 1999.

Elections for chair were held in the fall; hence for each calendar year, there were two chairs.  Chairing the state-wide organization have been:  Conlin (1973-1975); Margaret "Peg" Anderson (1975-1977); Nancy Norman-Uhl (1977-1979); Nancy Sweetman (1979-1981); Alice Claypool (1981-1983); Linda Kirkman (1983-1984); Katherine Ella (1984-1985); Betty Baird (1985-1987); Chris Michalek (1987-1989); Anne Webber (1989-1991); Nancylee Ziese (1991-1993); Janet Fife (1993-1995); Victoria Herring (1995-1997); and Christine (Tina) Manbeck (1998-1999).

A more detailed chronological history of the caucus can be found in the 1996 Member Handbook, in Box 17 of the collection.  A history of the early caucus (1973-1975) was the subject of a Master's Thesis which is on file at Iowa State University:  "A New Dimension in Political Participation: The Women's Political Caucus" by Barbara Louise Burrell (Call Number ISU 1975 B941 in Parks Library, Parks General Collection).

Found in 6 Collections and/or Records:

Clinton County Women's Political Caucus records

Identifier: IWA0556

Local branch of the Iowa Women's Political Caucus.

Dates: 1973-1977

Iowa Women's Political Caucus records

Identifier: IWA0019

Organization to promote the advancement of women in politics.

Dates: 1972-1999

Louise Rosenfield Noun papers

Identifier: IWA0035

Feminist and civil liberties activist from Des Moines, Iowa, who was also an art collector, author, and co-founder of the Louise Noun-Mary Louise Smith Iowa Women's Archives.

Dates: 1926-2018

Margaret Anderson Papers

Identifier: IWA0001

Subject files, correspondence and clippings relating to women's rights.

Dates: 1973-1978

Polk County Women's Political Caucus records

Identifier: IWA0748

County branch of a national organization to support candidates who promote women's rights and women's participation in the political process.

Dates: 1974-1987

The Way Up Leadership Conference records

 Collection — Folder 1
Identifier: IWA1003

Iowa-based conference held annually since 1983 to promote women in higher education.

Dates: 1983-1994

Additional filters:

Archives (groupings) 5
Women -- Political activity 5
Women lawyers 5
1971-1980 4
1981-1990 3