High Office is ‘Foreign’ to Iowa Women

Iowa prides itself on progressive thinking, so where are all the women governors, U.S. Senators, and Congressional Reps. Where are ANY?

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In Billy Wilder’s terrific 1948 romantic-comedic film “A Foreign Affair,” actress Jean Arthur played a character that has yet to exist in real life: an Iowa congresswoman.

Even though the movie is a comedy, Arthur’s Congresswoman Phoebe Frost of “Iowa’s Ninth District” is portrayed as a serious politician, earnest and competent in her work but just a bit unlucky in love.

She’s sent with her committee on an investigation of troop morale in post-World War II Germany. The other Members of Congress in the film are typecast as out-of-touch, aging Easterners and bumbling deep-fried Southerners. Frost is the one with pluck and sense.

And the Iowa angle is played large in this film with Wilder and his team making a very believable case that Arthur could have been a congresswoman from the Hawkeye State.

“How is good old Iowa?” asks her suitor, Capt. John Pringle.

“Sixty-two percent Republican, thank you,” Congresswoman Frost replies.

There is some discussion of the smell of cornfields after the rain and the singing of “Ioway.”


It’s interesting to watch this movie in 2009, to see the casual cigarette smoking in all places, the cruise-ship sexism of the Americans in Berlin, the antiquated speech and other cultural relics — and then realize that the back story for the marquee character is more progressive than anything that actually has happened for women in Iowa politics in the last 61 years.

The old movie is ahead of its time, and, disturbingly, our time.

Jean Arthur, who died in 1991, never lived to see the Internet, but she did play an Iowa congresswoman.

To use the familiar language of my generation, that’s messed up. Iowans — who live in a state where the majority of residents are women and where many women have earned well-deserved reputations as successful state legislators — have never sent a woman to Washington, D.C., vested with the authority to vote in the halls of Congress.

Iowa joins Mississippi, Delaware, and Vermont as the only states with such a distinction, according to the Center for American Woman in Politics at Rutgers University.

A year’s free subscription to the Daily Yonder for anyone who can find a woman represented on the Iowa State Seal.

Moreover, Iowa has never elected a woman as governor. Iowa and Mississippi are the only two states that have never elected a woman to lead the statehouse or to the U.S. House or U.S. Senate.

“Honestly, it really amazed me when you pointed that out to me,” said Linda Tarplin, a rural Iowa native and top Republican lobbyist in Washington, D.C. “I was surprised because I would have wanted to believe that my great state is one of open-minded and certainly fair-minded people.”

Tarplin worked for the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations before getting into healthcare lobbying. The Washington Post recently recognized her as one the top lobbyists in her field.

She’s more qualified to do the job of a Member of Congress than most men who have been elected from Iowa. I can tell you that Tarplin has one of the brighter political minds I’ve encountered in a decade and a half of writing about government — and would be a strong advocate for western Iowa interests. But, tragically, Tarplin may be a doomed candidate for one reason: she’s a she.

To be clear, Tarplin isn’t a candidate for anything. But she works with some of the nation’s most powerful people. So I asked her about this political glass ceiling for women in Iowa.

“As I thought about it I wondered if there is something to the fact that the state has traditionally been centered around an agricultural philosophy,” Tarplin said. “Even if you are in a manufacturing industry, everyone cares how the farmers are doing as so much of the local economy is dependent upon that, and that really does remain a man’s world.”

 

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