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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Lawther, Anna Bell
(September 6, 1872–October 21, 1957)

–suffragist, Democratic activist, civic volunteer, and the first woman to serve on the State Board of Education (later the Board of Regents)—was descended from two of Dubuque's earliest pioneer families. Born in Dubuque, she was the second of six children of William Lawther, an immigrant from Killyleagh, Ireland, who established himself as a banker, realtor, and candy maker in Dubuque, and Annie Elizabeth (Bell) Lawther, the daughter of John Bell, the founder of the first flour mill in Dubuque and the owner of Bell and Sons.

    Lawther graduated from the Dubuque public schools. Her family's financial success provided her the opportunity to attend Miss Steven's Preparatory School and Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. After graduating from Bryn Mawr in 1897, she served the college as assistant bursar (1898-1900), warden of Merion Hall (1904-1905), and secretary of the college (1907-1912). The 15 years she spent at Bryn Mawr influenced her decision to embrace woman suffrage. She became active in the Bryn Mawr College Equal Suffrage League and organized activities that featured leading suffragists. The lectures of Susan B. Anthony, Anna Howard Shaw, and Emmeline Pankhurst gave her firsthand knowledge of the issues and tactics of the woman suffrage movement.

    Upon her return to Dubuque in 1912, Lawther became active in local affairs. The woman suffragists of Dubuque elected her the first county chair of the Dubuque Equal Suffrage Association in 1916. Her potential for leadership was tested in a tough campaign to amend the Iowa Constitution to grant women suffrage. The statewide referendum was defeated in the June 1916 primary election amid allegations of voting irregularities. The Iowa suffragists recognized Lawther's organizational skills and unanimously elected her president of the Iowa Equal Suffrage Association in September 1916.

    By 1917 Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), was encouraging Lawther to promote the passage of a federal constitutional amendment while continuing to work for the resubmission of the defeated state amendment. Catt also encouraged Iowa women to promote suffrage as a war measure. On April 10, 1917, only four days after the United States entered World War I, Lawther announced a campaign to register Iowa women for war service. Her appointment in June 1917 to the Iowa Division of the Woman's Committee of the Council of National Defense led her to coordinate the war work of women's organizations, organize Liberty Loan rallies, advertise the war saving stamp campaigns, and promote the work of the Red Cross. She chaired the Women's Committee of the Iowa Food Administration and the Third Congressional District Committee of the Red Cross.

    The war service of suffrage organizations during World War I had a positive influence on the passage of the federal woman suffrage amendment. In March 1919 Lawther led a panel discussion on the federal amendment at the NAWSA Jubilee Convention in St. Louis. She supported the formation of the League of Women Voters "to foster education in citizenship."She lobbied effectively for ratification of the woman suffrage amendment, and on July 1, 1919, Iowa became the 10th state to ratify the 19th Amendment.

    The Iowa Democratic Party needed Lawther's skills to organize the new women voters. She served on the executive committee of the Democratic State Central Committee and initiated the first conference of Iowa Democratic women. In 1919 she was appointed as Iowa's first Democratic national committeewoman. The next year she became the first Iowa woman to serve as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention, which met that year in San Francisco. She was also a delegate to the 1924 Democratic National Convention in New York. In 1928 Lawther ran for State Auditor as a Democrat against incumbent Republican J. W. Long. Although she carried Dubuque County by a wide margin, she was unsuccessful statewide.

    In 1921 Governor Nathan Kendall appointed Lawther to the State Board of Education, predecessor of the Board of Regents. She was the first woman to serve on the board, and she served with distinction until 1941. In 1929 she led the Association of Governing Boards of State Universities and Allied Institutions. In 1927 Morningside College recognized her contributions to women's education by granting her an honorary doctorate, as did the University of Dubuque in 1936. In 1940 she became the first woman to deliver a convocation address at the State University of Iowa. In recognition of her contributions to higher education, the University of Northern Iowa named Lawther Hall, a women's residence facility, in her honor.

    After the death of her father in 1928, Lawther resided at the Julien Hotel in Dubuque until her death in 1957. Throughout her long life, she remained an active civic volunteer in Dubuque. She became a charter member of the Hillcrest Baby Fold in 1914 and served until 1954 as a trustee. As a member of the Iowa League of Women Voters, she supported the Sheppard-Towner Act and the Child Labor Amendment. She was an active member of the Westminster Presbyterian Church, the American Association of University Women, and PEO. In 1985 Lawther was inducted into the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame.

    In July 1931 the Iowa Suffrage Memorial Commission honored Lawther and other women active in Iowa's woman suffrage movement by inscribing their names on a bronze tablet located on the west wall of the State Historical Building in Des Moines. The inscription reads: "This tablet is a tribute to those women of Iowa whose courageous works opened the opportunities of complete citizenship for all women of the state."The life of Anna Bell Lawther is an example of the courageous work of one Iowan to improve the status of women.
Sources The State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City, holds the Lawther Collection, 1874–1927; the Historical Society's Des Moines library holds the Iowa Women's Suffrage Records. See also Steven J. Fuller and Alsatia Mellecker, "Behind the Yellow Banner: Anna B. Lawther and the Winning of Suffrage for Iowa Women," Palimpsest 65 (1984), 106– 16; and Louise Noun, Strong-Minded Women: The Emergence of the Woman-Suffrage Movement in Iowa (1969).
Contributor: Kathleen M. Green

Cite as: Green, Kathleen M. "Lawther, Anna Bell" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 13 December 2017