Unseen Women's History

Unseen Women's History

Women are missing from history textbooks and much public memory, but not because their stories have not been told. In fact, women have endeavored to preserve their history through spoken word, writings, and narratives that captured the remarkable contributions women have made to our society, but seldom did these records reach publication, gaining wider exposure.

By the time our foremothers’ works reached established archives, they often remained categorized under the name of a man – husband, son, or a male editor. And early historians used publications of male leaders because they were more accessible, and because the history that mattered to them was more political in nature, told from familiar national leaders.

For these and other reasons, sources of women’s history simply became unseen. Fortunately, museums and archivists are adding women’s collections to their resources, including the University of Iowa, established in 1992 by Chrysalis founder Louise Noun and her peer, Mary Louise Smith. Louise Noun was known as an art collector, social activist, philanthropist, and historian; Mary Louise Smith was a Republican Party activist and the first woman to chair the Republican National Committee from 1974 to 1977.

An author herself, Louise Noun realized the need for a source of women’s stories while she researched information for her 1969 book, Strong Minded Women, a history of women’s suffrage in Iowa. She spoke with Mary Louise Smith her irritation about how little she could find as primary sources by and about women, and the two agreed to establish a collection of the achievements and experiences of Iowa women.

In 1991, noun donated her original Frida Kahlo painting, “Self-Portrait with Loose Hair” to Chrysalis with instructions to forward the painting to world-known auctioneers for sale, with proceeds used to permanently endow the Iowa Women’s Archives. The painting sold at auction in May 1991 at Christie’s in New York at a price of $1.65 million.

At the bottom of the painting (pictured), a parchment reads, “Here I painted myself, Frida Kahlo, with my reflection in the mirror. I am 37 years old and this is July 1947 in Coyoacan, Mexico, the place where I was born.” Interestingly, her age was 40 at the time of the painting.

So steadfast in her conviction to record women’s history, Louise Noun authored four books on feminism in Iowa, along with her own history through her autobiography, Journey to Autonomy: A Memoir (1990). They were:

Strong-Minded Women: The Emergence of the Woman-Suffrage Movement in Iowa (1969)

Iowa Women in the WPA (1999)

More Strong-Minded Women: Iowa Feminists Tell Their Stories (1992)

Leader and Pariah: Annie Savery and the Campaign for Women’s Rights in Iowa (2002)

The Iowa Women’s Archives now holds more than 1,200 collections chronicling the lives and work of Iowa women, their families, and their communities. Various special projects of the archive staff include Women’s Suffrage in Iowa, Jewish Women in Iowa, Mujeres Latinas, African American Women Students, and the Mysterious Mildred Wirt Benson (ghost writer of the Nancy Drew series).

As we know, March is Women’s History Month, and it’s wholly appropriate that the 2023 theme is “Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories.”

Fortunately, Louise Noun was ahead of her time, recognizing the need to tell the stories of so many Iowa women who shaped history.