The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


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Fowle, Phyllis L. Propp
(March 8, 1908–June 22, 2000)

–the first woman officer in the Army Judge Advocate General's Corps—was born on a farm near Laurel, Iowa, to Henry Propp Jr. and his second wife, Martha Ida (Knoble) Propp. Phyllis was the third of the couple's five daughters, one of whom died in infancy. Henry Propp sold his farm in 1914, and the family moved to Marshalltown, Iowa, where Martha Propp took in boarders to help support the family. Phyllis Propp graduated from Marshalltown High School in 1925 and attended Drake University for one year before transferring to the State University of Iowa, where she earned a B.A. in 1930 and was one of only two women to receive a J.D. in the law class of 1933. Propp briefly practiced law in Mason City, and then took a position with the Farm Credit Administration in Omaha. She worked for the federal government for seven years, eventually becoming an attorney in the legal department of the Federal Land Bank.

    Shortly after the United States entered World War II, Propp enlisted in the newly created Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC), which later became the Women's Army Corps (WAC). In July 1942 she reported to Fort Des Moines, Iowa, as a member of the first group of 440 WAACs selected for officer training. In September 1942 Third Officer Propp was assigned as a training officer to the WAAC training center in Daytona Beach, Florida. She wanted to use her legal skills in the army, however, so she requested an assignment with the Judge Advocate General's (JAG) Corps. Although she met the two written qualifications for JAG duty—she was over 28 years old and had at least four years of legal experience—Propp's request was denied on account of her sex. She persisted, however, and in February 1944, then a captain, Propp became the post judge advocate at Fort Des Moines, the home of the WAC. Upon her arrival, the male installation commander informed her, "I don't want you, I don't need you, and I didn't ask for you."

    In spite of that inauspicious beginning, Captain Propp was commissioned as the first woman officer in the JAG Corps in May 1944. Although she was not permitted to enroll at the JAG school because it had no facilities for women, Propp did attend the army's Personal Legal Affairs course at Washington and Lee University and eventually became a specialist in the new field of legal assistance. The army's legal assistance program had been established in partnership with the American Bar Association in 1943 to meet the legal needs of military personnel, which had grown tremendously due to the rapid expansion of the wartime army. As a legal assistance officer, Propp advised soldiers on a broad range of personal legal matters, including wills, estates, family law, and income taxes. In early 1945 she received an overseas assignment with the European Theater of Operations in Paris, where she played a central role in implementing the legal assistance program in Europe. During her service in Europe, Propp was promoted to major and then to lieutenant colonel, the highest rank available in the WAC.

    After the war, Propp moved with the command to Frankfurt, Germany. She left active duty in 1947, but remained in Germany as a civilian attorney in the Office of Staff Judge Advocate and continued to serve as chief of legal assistance. Propp resigned in 1951 shortly before marrying Farnsworth Fowle, an American foreign correspondent and reporter for the New York Times, whom she had met in Germany. The couple returned to the United States the following year and made their home in New York City, where Fowle practiced law privately through the 1970s. She served on the board of the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), and held terms as president of the Riverdale Committee on Intergroup Relations and the Riverdale chapter of the United Nations Association of the United States of America.

    Fowle continued to serve as judge advocate in the army reserves until 1962. When she retired, only eight women served in the JAG Corps. (More than 350 women were detailed to JAG by the end of the century.) In 1999 Fowle was named Distinguished Member of the Judge Advocate General's Regiment, the regiment's highest award, and a suite at the JAG school was named in her honor. In 2000 the American Bar Association's Commission on Women in the Profession awarded her its Trailblazer's Certificate. Phyllis Propp Fowle died in New York City in 2000. She was inducted into the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame in 2001.
Sources Fowle's nomination papers for the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame are located in the Iowa Women's Archives, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City, and at the State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines; a VHS tape of the 1999 award banquet at which Fowle was named a Distinguished Member of the Judge Advocate General's Regiment is at the U.S. Army Women's Museum in Fort Lee, Virginia.
Contributor: Sharon Lake