Feminist Reunion brings activists back to Iowa City to celebrate their legacies

Iowa City Feminist Reunion

Various Locations — Friday, July 14-Sunday, July 16

Copies of ‘Ain’t I a Woman’ are on display at the UI Main Library gallery as part of the ‘Power to the Printers: The Alternative Press in Iowa City, 1965-1985’ exhibit. — photo by Lauren Shotwell

The Iowa City Feminist Reunion is set to celebrate Iowa City’s feminist movement this weekend, with a focus on the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, a time period that boasted a lively alternative press as well as the establishment of a number of institutions that Iowa City residents continue to rely on today.

Events include discussion sessions, a Friday night reception at the Women’s Resource & Action Center, a Saturday night gala dinner at the Old Brick to benefit the Iowa Women’s Archives and a Sunday softball game in Happy Hollow Park.

“It started a few years ago, just people sitting on the back porch thinking, wouldn’t it be nice to see everyone again,” said Jefri Palermo, development coordinator and PR specialist for the UI School of Social Work and one of the event organizers.

Palermo said people are expected to come to the reunion from all over the country, including those who were instrumental in developing local institutions during the ’60s to the ’80s in response to needs in the community. Some of those institutions no longer exist in Iowa City — like the Iowa City Women’s Press, which printed lesbian and feminist books from 1973 to 1985 — while others are still around, serving the community and rallying today’s feminist leaders, including the Emma Goldman Clinic, Women’s Resource and Action Center, Rape Victim Advocacy Program and Domestic Violence Intervention Program. The story of the people behind the movement often remains behind the scenes, which is part of the reason for the event.

“It is an opportunity to tell our own stories, because some of these stories haven’t been told to the public and to the young feminist activist in our community now,” Palermo said. “These stories have kind of gotten erased.”

That is where the women’s archive comes in. The Iowa Women’s Archives documents the lives and activities of Iowa women through its collection of personal papers, photos, organizational records and oral histories. Attendees have been encouraged to bring photos and other items to add to the archives to document the movement in Iowa City. Attendees will also have opportunities to record their stories as oral histories.

The event kicks off the archive’s celebration of its 25th year anniversary following its founding by two Des Moines women, Louise Noun and Mary Louise Smith. Noun was a social activist, philanthropist, historian and art collector who funded the archives with the auction of a Frida Kahlo painting, “Self-Portrait with Loose Hair.” Mary Louise Smith was the first woman to chair the Republican National Committee, a position she held from 1974 to 1977.

Iowa Women’s Archives founders Louise Noun (L) and Mary Louise Smith at the archives’ opening symposium in 1992. The Iowa Women’s Archives is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. — photo from the University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa Women’s Archives

Kären Mason, who has worked as the curator of the Iowa Women’s Archives since it opened in 1992, said the archive plays an important role in making women, and the community, aware of the significant contributions they have made. The archives have been used by historians in their research as well as to support efforts such as the naming of Iowa City’s Elizabeth Tate High School.

“A lot of people think about archives as being about the famous, the rich and powerful,” Mason said. “But we are preserving the archives of everyone, women who had a powerful role in communities and women who weren’t known outside their households.”

An exhibit currently on display at the UI Main Library called “Power to the Printers: The Alternative Press in Iowa City, 1965-1985,” was timed to coincide with the reunion events and holds a number of items drawn from the archives related to the Iowa City feminist movement.

“We have so many newsletters, like Ain’t I a Woman? produced by the Women’s Liberation Front in the early ’70s, and records of the Emma Goldman Clinic, but there are so many stories about how the institutions came about, and the documents don’t tell the whole story,” Mason said.

“It’s really been fun to meet all the people whose papers I’ve looked at and whose names I’ve heard, but never met,” she added.

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Discussion topics on Friday and Saturday include a history of the movement, the creation of feminist and lesbian spaces, the building of communities and institutions, responses to racism and how to apply past lessons to today’s political activism.

Women’s Resource and Action Center newsletters as well as other ephemera are on display at the UI Main Library gallery as part of the ‘Power to the Printers: The Alternative Press in Iowa City, 1965-1985’ exhibit. — photo by Lauren Shotwell

Although tickets are no longer available for the full reunion weekend (which would provide meals), organizers encouraged those interested to attend discussions as well as the Friday reception, entertainment Saturday night at the Old Brick following the gala dinner, and the Sunday softball game that features the return of the WRAC Rats and the Bluestockings — both in costume.

“For many of us, going back to our high school and college reunions wasn’t very attractive,” Palermo said. “So this is kind of our reunion with the people who really made things happen and challenged authorities during that time. It’s going to be really exciting to have people back in town. I can’t believe we pulled this off.”

Tickets for the gala dinner are $50 and can be purchased online. A full schedule of events and locations is also available online.

The weekend’s events are sponsored by the Iowa Women’s Archives, the Women’s Resource and Action Center (WRAC) and the University of Iowa School of Social Work.

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