Dr. Jennie McCowen’s “Women In Iowa” (1884)

What better way to celebrate both Women’s History Month and Iowa History Month than to highlight an historic essay about Iowa women written by a woman of Davenport, Iowa for a journal of Iowa history?

“Women of Iowa” appeared in the October 1884 issue of the State Historical Society of Iowa’s Annals of Iowa. [1] The author, Dr. Jennie McCowen (sometimes McCowan), was one of the first women graduates of the State University of Iowa’s School of Medicine (1876), the founder of the Working Woman’s Lend-a-Hand Club in Davenport (1886), and a practicing physician with offices at 106 West 4th Street. [2]

McCowen examined 1880 federal census data to bring to light the 80,000 [2] Iowa women “…at work at various gainful occupations.” (98) She found those engaged on many levels in a wide range of business enterprises, from mining company trustees and bankers to millners and grocers; a growing number of saleswomen, bookkeepers, cashiers, and clerical workers in both businesses and government agencies; plus a prison matron and a reform school director. Women insurance agents, librarians, writers, publishers, visual artists and art instructors, sculptors, potters, china painters, and scientific illustrators were also enumerated, along with school teachers and administrators, university and college professors. Women profiting from their patented inventions (for a thermometer, an egg beater, a griddle greaser, a door screen attachment, a photograph album, and an ironing board) were also mentioned. In her own field of medicine, McCowen counted women doctors, nurses, midwives, pharmacists, and a few “lady dentists.” Among the “…pursuits popularly supposed to be monopolized by men…” there were Iowa women who made products such as brick, tile, brooms, tools, machine shop products, mattresses, buggy tops, paints, saddles, surgical appliances, windmills, tents, agricultural implements, and washing machines. (99)

McCowen was quick to point out that women were underrepresented in the statistics she reported. A “large number of women working in conjunction with husband, father or other male relative are not reported as workers for wages,” she said. (100) On the 26 midwives recorded in the census, she remarked that “… it is believed that this latter figure falls far short of the actual number.” (108) There were also women who found “supplementary employment,” such as the “raising of poultry, the keeping of bees, and the raising of silkworms” (99) to consider. She believed that the gathering of labor statistics about women should be improved, and toward that end, she led the Association of American Women in persuading the Labor Bureau of Iowa to include “such queries as would show adequately the relations of women to labor” to their questionnaires. (102) [4]

That women’s performance in certain occupations was superior to men’s was another point ventured: Presumably anectdotal evidence told her that shorthand secretaries wrote more neatly, cashiers counted more quickly and accurately, and bookkeepers arrived at their figures with greater care. Women county school superintendents were preferred by “the testimony of those teaching under them.” (101) Indeed, the reason Iowa ranked so highly among U.S. states in the field of education, she concluded, was because the institutions were “largely in the hands of women.” (103) And the promise that women would improve the workforce in the future could be seen in the number of academic prizes won by female students in Iowa. Finally, she noted that Unitarian Universalist and Christian women ministers in Iowa found greater success with rebuilding “peculiarly trying parishes” than had the men before them. (109)

McCowen took it as a given that women wanted to work outside the home. To her, it was “inevitable” they would “…seek some outside occupation by which they might not only support themselves but also provide for…those depending upon them,” as products made in factories replaced those women had traditionally labored to create in a domestic setting. She was confident Iowa women felt that “…whatever is right for them to attempt is possible for them to accomplish…” (98)

Iowa women’s unpaid work was also highlighted in the article. McCowen praised the “various benevolent and philanthropic enterprises,” run soley by women in the state, such as sewing schools for “neglected girls,” projects of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and social reform efforts of fraternal societies’ auxiliaries. Those who served as religious leaders, participated in foreign and domestic missions, advanced the cause of women’s suffrage, practiced as naturalists and healers, and formed societies for the study of literature, history, art, and other subjects were also worthy of her note, as were the women educators and medical workers who volunteered time to their professional societies.

To trumpet the acheivements of Iowa women, McCowen turned to local examples: A “young lady of Davenport is doing most valuable original work in tracing the life history of the insects of the State, rearing and sketching the larvae in all stages,” a “young lady of Princeton has prepared the illustrations for a new work on zoology by one of the professors of the State University,” and a “lady of Muscatine whose specialty is entomology…has written a number of papers upon this subject, which have been read before the State Horticultural Society and printed in its reports.” (105-6) [5] Mary L. D. Putnam’s election to the presidency of the Davenport Academy of Science in 1879 was a great source of pride, as was the number of women members active in the organization, Davenport women’s support of the Clarissa Cook Home for Aged and Friendless Women (“built and maintained in comfort by the legacy of a lady”), and her own service as Iowa vice-president of the Association for the Advancement of Women, state director of the National Association for the Protection of the Insane and the Prevention of Insanity, and president of the Scott County Medical Society.

We salute you, Dr. Jennie McCowen, for lifting up Iowa (and Davenport, Iowa) women!

(posted by Katie)


[1] McCowen, Jennie. “Women In Iowa” Annals of Iowa, 3rd Series, Vol. III (October 1884), pages 97-113. In The Freedom of the Streets: Work, Citizenship, and Sexuality in a Gilded Age City (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), page 44, historian Sharon E. Wood indicates that McCowen’s strong “interest in changing the debate on women’s employment” inspired her to “seek out a wider audience” for the research she had originally completed for the Association for the Advancement of Women by submitting the report to the Iowa Commision for the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial in New Orleans.

The essay “Women in Iowa” had its origins in McCowen’s 1884 report for the AAW’s Committee of Reforms. As the newly-minted vice-president of the Iowa chapter that year, she answered the required questions about taxes and property ownership, but was also motivated to investigate the prior years’ topic of women’s employment in Iowa in more detail. Wood says Her “interest in changing the debate on women’s employment” and on the agenda of the AAW that “embraced paid employment as a source of personal and social virtue.” [Wood, 36]she submitted the report to the Iowa Commision for the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial in New Orleans and from there it got the attention of the Annals? [Wood, 43-44]

[2] McCowen’s many additional accomplishments are detailed in her obituaries in the 28 July 1924 editions of the Davenport Democrat and Leader and the Daily Times (Davenport, Iowa).

[3] I could not determine how McCowen arrived at this final figure, but the names of the occupations held by Iowa women in 1880 are found in the reports 1880 Census: Volume 1. Statistics of the Population of the United States and 1880 Census: Volume 2. Report on the Manufactures of the United States.

[4] Wood, Freedom of the Streets, page 45.

[5] Please let us know if you have any information about who these “ladies” might be!

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