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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Houghton, Dorothy Deemer
(March 11, 1890–March 15, 1972)

–Iowa women's club leader and public official—rose through the ranks of the early-20thcentury women's club movement to become president of the National Federation of Women's Clubs, a position of national prominence that led to service as cochairperson of Citizens for Eisenhower and subsequent appointments within the United Nations and as vice president of the Electoral College.

    Dorothy Deemer was born in Red Oak, Iowa, the second and only surviving child of Horace E. Deemer and Jeanette (Gibson) Deemer. Her father was a prominent attorney who served for more than 20 years on the Iowa Supreme Court. As a child, Houghton lived in Red Oak and Des Moines. Through her father, she was introduced to many leading political and cultural figures of the day, including Robert M. La Follette and William Jennings Bryan. Houghton was unusually close to her father, and he in turn imbued his only child with a strong sense of civic-mindedness, commitment to public service, and self-confidence.

    After graduating from Red Oak High School, Houghton, at her father's insistence, enrolled at Wellesley College. Although initially self-conscious, Houghton soon warmed to the Wellesley atmosphere, became outgoing, and briefly considered a career as an actress.

    Following graduation from Wellesley in 1912, Deemer married Hiram Houghton, whose family owned and operated a bank in Red Oak. The Houghtons had four children: Horace Deemer, Cole, Hiram Clark, and Joan. Houghton found that her new life as a homemaker and mother lacked the intellectual stimulation she craved. Her husband suggested that she become involved in the local women's club. Within the club, Houghton found her niche. A gifted organizer, Houghton became a leader, first locally and then on a statewide level within the women's club movement, championing such causes as libraries, paved streets and roads, improved educational facilities, and conservation. In 1938 she became the president of the Iowa Federation of Women's Clubs.

    Presumably because of her visibility in club work and also due to her father's political connections, Houghton was appointed to the State Board of Education (later the Board of Regents) in 1939. She later served on the Board of Curators of the State Historical Society of Iowa, an institution in which her father had been active.

    In 1950 Houghton was elected to the presidency of the General Federation of Women's Clubs and took up residence at the club's headquarters in Washington, D.C. As president, Houghton championed an internationalist approach, urging clubwomen to support the United Nations and the Marshall Plan. She worked 16-hour days and kept a staff of three secretaries busy with her correspondence.

    During the early 1950s, Houghton promoted Dwight Eisenhower's candidacy for the presidency, campaigning for the former general in 11 states. Although initially considered by Eisenhower for the post of ambassador to The Netherlands, Houghton was appointed assistant director for Mutual Security for Refugees and Migration. In that post, Houghton served as a goodwill ambassador, visiting and overseeing areas with refugee sit uations. Upon her retirement in 1956, Houghton received the Nansen Medal in 1957, given by the United Nations in honor of refugee work. Houghton was the second woman to receive the award; the first, Eleanor Roosevelt, was present to congratulate her. During that same year, Houghton served as national cochair of Citizens to Reelect Eisenhower and also served as vice president of the Electoral College.

    Houghton retired to the family home in Red Oak. During the years of her retirement, she continued to serve on a host of committees and to travel. Following the death of her husband in 1957, she moved to Iowa City, where she lived near her youngest son and participated in the cultural activities of the university city. During retirement, she authored a memoir, Reflections. In declining health, Houghton moved to a care facility in Red Oak, where she died at age 82. She was buried in Red Oak.
Sources The principal sources for Houghton are 10 boxes of her personal papers housed at the State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City, and her memoir, Reflections (1968). See also Peter Hoehnle, "Iowa Clubwomen Rise to the World Stage: Dorothy Houghton and Ruth Sayre," Iowa Heritage Illustrated 83 (2002), 30–46.
Contributor: Peter Hoehnle

Cite as: Hoehnle, Peter. "Houghton, Dorothy Deemer" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 11 December 2017