Trailblazing Iowa Women
by Bryon Houlgrave
From astronauts to race car drivers, humanitarians and authors, Iowa women have proven that there are no limits to what can be accomplished. We're highlighting four area trailblazers to celebrate Women's History Month - who would be on your list for inspiring Iowa women?
In July of 1969, a young girl sat in front of the television in her family’s Beaconsfield, Iowa, farmhouse and watched as U.S. astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to step down onto the moon. Unbeknownst to her at the time, she would make space history decades later.
In 2007, Mount Ayr’s Peggy Whitson became the first woman to command the International Space Station. In 2009, she rose to the rank of Chief Astronaut, NASA Astronaut Corps’ senior-most position.
“Peggy is a record breaker,” Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said in her letter of support to the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame committee.
“Over the course of her career, she has spent 665 days in space: more time than any other woman in the world, and more time than any American in space, man or woman.”
Whitson holds the record for the number of spacewalks ever by a woman, having made 10. NASA defines spacewalk as any time an astronaut gets out of a vehicle while in space. The first spacewalk was made in 1965 by Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov.
The first spacewalk lasted 10 minutes. Today, spacewalks can last up to eight hours, according to NASA.
Whitson has spent more than 60 hours collectively on spacewalks.
In 2017, Whitson again commanded the International Space Station (ISS), becoming the first woman to do so twice. Her flight in the ISS was 289 days, the longest space flight by a woman until Christina Koch broke that record in 2019.
Whitson retired from NASA in 2018, and will serve as mission commander of the Axiom Mission 2, a private mission to the ISS scheduled to launch on May 12, 2023.
Whitson was inducted into the Iowa Women Hall of Fame in 2018.
“No longer must young women and girls wonder if there is a place for them in STEM fields or professions like that of an astronaut,” Reynolds wrote. “Peggy is living proof that women can have brilliant success in whatever profession they choose.”
Mildred Wirt Benson
Even as a young girl, Mildred Wirt Benson knew she was destined to be a writer. What she didn’t know then was she was charting a course that would change the lives of generations of girls and young women.
“I always wanted to be a writer from the time I could walk,” Wirt Benson told the Associated Press in an interview in 2001, months before she passed away in Ohio.
Born in 1905 in Ladora, a small community roughly 40 miles southwest of Cedar Rapids, Wirt Benson began writing short stories and sold her first story to St. Nicholas magazine when she was just 12. Two years later she won her first writing award.
She studied journalism at the University of Iowa, becoming the first woman to receive a master’s degree from the university’s journalism program in 1927, according to the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame, where she was inducted in 1994.
Between her undergraduate degree and her master's, she began writing at the Clinton Herald. In 1926, she saw an ad for a company seeking ghost writers. The company was the Stratemeyer Syndicate, the group responsible for the wildly successful Hardy Boys and Bobbsey Twins series. Edward Stratemeyer was looking for ghost writers to work on a new series called Nancy Drew.
While the character of the young female detective was conceptualized by Stratemeyer, it was Wirt Benson, writing under the pseudonym of Carol Keane, that gave Nancy Drew her inquisitive personality and adventurous drive. Wirt Benson wrote 23 of the first 30 books in the Nancy Drew collection.
“She made Nancy Drew who she was,” said Judy Quick, an avid Nancy Drew reader from Des Moines. “It was all Mildred Wirt Benson who made [Nancy Drew] independent and strong. She was fearless and had lots of adventures. That’s the character Mildred created.”
United States Supreme Court justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Sandra Day O’Connor were all inspired by Nancy Drew, according to a New York Times article published in 2009.
In a time when the pressure was on young girls to grow up to be stay at home mothers, Mildred Wirt Benson showed them there was so much more out there.
“She has inspired young girls and women for almost 100 years, showing them that they have options,” Quick said.
In addition to a successful writing career, Wirt Benson was an accomplished swimmer and an adventurer, having hiked through South American jungles and canoed down many rivers. Much of that spirit lives on in Nancy Drew, who remains relevant today.
“It’s just astounding to me how current [Nancy Drew] still is,” Quick said. “Mildred Wirt Benson was a trailblazer for sure, and should be remembered for being fierce and feisty and independent and just being comfortable with who she was.”
Evelyn K. Davis
Evelyn K. Davis made the underserved her mission. In 1967, seeing a need in the community, she founded the Tiny Tot Child Care Center in Des Moines, with the goal of providing child care services to low income families.
“Back when women began entering the workforce, Evelyn K. Davis saw a need for low income families and made it her mission to help them,” said Iowa congresswoman Sharon Steckman, adding that the daycare founded in the heart of Des Moines gave “the less fortunate access to competent childcare.”
According to the Evelyn K. Davis Center’s website, the Tiny Tots child care center was the first in the state to help at-risk families.
“At the time it was a novel idea,” Steckman said. “Her childcare concept helped parents work outside the home to support their family, or enabled them to further their education.”
In 1983 Evelyn K. Davis was inducted into the Iowa Women Hall of Fame. A park is named in her honor in Des Moines, next to the Forest Avenue Library.
Davis, perhaps inspired by her mother who always had a meal for those needing assistance, according to a bio at evelynkdaviscenter.org, teamed up with Iowa State University to implement Iowa’s daycare certification program. She also helped established a free medical clinic at the House of Mercy on Clark Street in Des Moines.
“She set the standard for childcare facilities,” Steckman said, adding that Davis is “an amazing woman and a true pioneer for the less privileged.”
Iowa City-born Janet Guthrie raced into the history books in 1977, becoming the first female race car driver to qualify for both the Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500. A year later, she secured a top ten finish in the 1978 Indy 500, finishing in ninth place. Later she revealed that she had competed the event with a broken wrist injured days earlier in a charity tennis match. She had hidden that detail from race officials.
Guthrie’s best finish in a race car came in 1977, when she finished sixth at Bristol Speedway in Bristol, Tennessee.
“Anyone who says she doesn’t belong, just feels threatened,” race car driver Mario Andretti told the now-defunct Washington Star during an interview in 1977.
In 2006, Guthrie was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame (the same year NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt was inducted), joining Shirley Muldowney and Louis Smith as the only three females ever inducted. Her helmet and race suit are on display at the Smithsonian, according to a bio on her website.
Peggy Whitson photo provided by NASA.