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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Dunlap, Flora
(February 27, 1872–August 26, 1952)

–settlement house worker and social reformer—was born in 1872 in Pickaway County, Ohio, to Mary and Samuel W. Dunlap. She grew up near Circleville, Ohio, where her father was a wealthy farmer Dunlap attended school in Columbus, Ohio, and graduated from Cincinnati (Ohio) Wesleyan College. While visiting a friend in Pittsburgh after graduation, she went to the Kingsley House settlement "almost by chance" and was so taken with it that she returned to serve an apprenticeship as a volunteer worker for a year. She then spent a winter at Goodrich House in Cleveland and became a resident at Hull House in Chicago. With famous people coming and going, she found Hull House "a stimulating, an absorbing, and a bewildering place in which to live and work."In 1904 she accepted the position of head resident at Roadside Settlement House in Des Moines on the advice of Jane Addams, who believed she would have greater autonomy in the West than in the East (Connecticut), where she had another offer.

    When Dunlap took up her duties, the eight year-old settlement was located on the second floor of a house on Mulberry near the business district. As the neighborhood grew increasingly commercial, the settlement lost the people it had hoped to serve. The board decided to relocate in the South Bottoms, an area southeast of the capitol cut off from the city by railroad tracks and the Des Moines River. Because of its vulnerability to flooding, land was cheap, and the neighborhood was one of the poorest in the city. After a successful fund-raising campaign, Dunlap oversaw construction of a large, three-story brick building at Seventh and Scott housing club rooms, library, dining room, manual training shop, gymnasium, and bath and laundry facilities. Dunlap considered this new building, which opened in 1906, one of her greatest achievements because it was designed specifically as a settlement house.

    At Roadside, Dunlap established programs typical of settlement houses elsewhere. There were sewing and cooking classes for girls, manual training for boys, an employment Service for women, literary and social clubs, and basketball teams for young men. In a neighborhood where few houses had indoor plumbing, the settlement provided essential washing and bathing facilities–5-cent baths for women and 10-cent showers for men, who could afford to pay more. Recognizing that many women had to earn wages to support their families, the settlement operated a day nursery for children under age five and allowed women to use the laundry not only for their personal use but to take in washing to earn money.

    The settlement was open to African Americans from the beginning; younger children sometimes participated in mixed groups, while older children and adults met separately. In 1907 Dunlap worked with Jewish leaders to begin settlement work for the Jewish community in Des Moines. When the Jewish Settlement Association employed a Jewish settlement worker later that year, Roadside Settlement provided her room and board and hosted the activities until it became clear that Roadside was too far from the Jewish neighborhood, and activities were moved to a more suitable location.

    During the two decades she served as head resident of Roadside, Dunlap's activities extended well beyond the settlement house and its neighborhood. In 1912 she ran for the Des Moines school board, receiving support from the women of Des Moines "irrespective of social position."Young society women in limousines distributed campaign literature in the fashionable neighborhoods, women's clubs endorsed her candidacy, and shop girls who belonged to clubs at Roadside Settlement campaigned zealously for Dunlap by leaving candidacy cards in stores, factories, streetcars, and restaurants. Dunlap won, becoming the first woman to serve on the board. As she ended her three-year term, however, she described it as "the most unpleasant and most futile task" she had ever undertaken because none of the other members–all men– would speak or listen to her. One board member called the mothers who attended a meeting "old hens."Dunlap concluded that the board was not ready for women and decided not to run for reelection.

    During the same period, Dunlap served as legislative chair of the Iowa Federation of Women's Clubs (1913-1915) and was a leader in the woman suffrage movement. She won the presidency of the Iowa Equal Suffrage Association in 1913 and held the office until 1916, crisscrossing the state in 1913 in an automobile with other suffragists to hold educational open-air meetings in 30 towns. When an amendment to the state constitution giving Iowa women the right to vote was submitted to the voters in 1916, Dunlap led the campaign. The amendment was defeated in a fraudulent election, which Dunlap described in the chapter she wrote on Iowa for the multivolume History of Woman Suffrage.

    Whether discouraged by the suffrage vote or craving a new field of opportunity, Dunlap resigned from Roadside Settlement in September 1916 to head the Neighborhood Guild House in Brooklyn, New York. In 1917 and 1918 she was the regional director of the girls division of the War Camp Community Service. She returned to Roadside Settlement in 1918 and remained the head resident until 1924, when she resigned but continued her involvement as an active board member.

    After Congress passed the 19th Amendment in 1919, Dunlap became the first president of the fledgling Iowa League of Women Voters, serving a one-year term (1919-1920). She was elected head of the Polk County Women's Democratic Club in 1922 and again in 1940. From 1924 to 1930 she lived in Circleville, Ohio, her childhood home. Returning to Des Moines during the Depression, she held several government positions: member of the Polk County emergency relief committee and head of the Polk County women's division of the Works Progress Administration. She moved to Columbus, Ohio, in 1943 to be closer to family as she aged. Flora Dunlap Elementary School in the Roadside neighborhood, named in her honor, was completed before her death on August 26, 1952.
Sources Much of this essay is derived from an article by Louise Noun in the Des Moines Register, 4/11/1993, and from research files on Dunlap in the Louise Noun Papers, Iowa Women's Archives, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City. See also Iowa biography files, Des Moines Public Library; obituary, Annals of Iowa 31 (1953), 560; and articles by Flora Dunlap, including "Roadside Settlement of Des Moines," Annals of Iowa 21 (1938), 161–89; "Settlement vs. Saloon: Some Twenty Years of Competition for Leadership in the Des Moines Bottoms," Survey (1927); and "Iowa," in History of Woman Suffrage, ed. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage (1881–1922).
Contributor: Kären M. Mason

Cite as: Mason, Kären M. "Dunlap, Flora" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 12 December 2017