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Wilson, Cristine Louise Swanson
(June 28, 1945–May 20, 1991)

–feminist activist, first woman to chair the Polk County Republican Party, and member and chair of the Iowa Commission on the Status of Women—was the oldest daughter of Donald Swanson, a Des Moines lawyer, and Margaret (Boeye) Swanson.

    Wilson received her B.A. in history at Grinnell College in 1967, where she was involved in student government and active in Republican politics. She hosted former president Dwight Eisenhower during his visit to the campus in May 1965. She planned to become an educator and a lawyer.

    Wilson taught social studies at Mahopac Middle School north of New York City in 1967-1968. She continued teaching at Franklin Junior High in Des Moines while getting her master's degree in history at the University of Iowa in 1969. She married George Whitgraf, an administrator of youth programs for Iowa Republican Governor Robert D. Ray. They divorced with no children. In 1972 she married Mel Wilson, a history teacher. The Wilsons had two children, Hawkeye and Sarah. In 1975 Cristine Wilson began studying law at Drake University.

    In the early 1970s Wilson became a leading Iowa feminist through her work with young people. Her employers asked her to review books for younger children; she critiqued the unvarying depiction of women in stereotypical housewife roles. Wilson's feminism consistently emerged from personal experience: unable to get a credit card without her husband's signature, she challenged the policy. She also led a lawsuit against school policy prohibiting pregnant teachers from using sick leave. Her ally in women's rights and best friend was Roxanne Conlin. With a group of like-minded friends, they founded the Iowa Women's Political Caucus in 1972 in Conlin's living room. The caucus encouraged women to become involved in politics.

    In 1971, with Governor Robert Ray's support, Wilson and other important figures– including Betty Durden of Drake University (chair of the Governor's Commission on the Status of Women, 1969-1972), Ralph R. Brown (chair of the commission's Legislative Committee), Arlene Dayhoff (vice-chair of the commission), Dorothy Goettsch (the first executive director), Edwin C. Lewis, and Evelyne Villines–worked to make the governor's commission permanent as the Iowa Commission on the Status of Women (ICSW) in 1972, making it eligible for state funding. Elizabeth Shaw shepherded the measure through the Iowa House, Arthur Neu through the Senate. Wilson served on the ICSW until 1976, including a year as chair (1972).

    Under Wilson's guidance the ICSW had notable success in bettering women's status in Iowa. Achievements included state funding for child care centers, making the language throughout the Iowa Code gender neutral, eliminating the requirement for corroborative testimony in rape trials, providing that rape victims no longer be interrogated about their sexual past, and making marital rape a crime. The commission also ensured that homemakers' contributions be recognized as part of an estate (eliminating the requirement that housewives and farm wives pay taxes on inheritances), and sex discrimination became prohibited in education, credit, and housing. Other initiatives included proposing changes in divorce and abortion laws, and lobbying the Iowa legislature to ratify the federal Equal Rights Amendment.

    At age 31 on May 20, 1977, Wilson suffered an accident that left her in a coma for 14 years until her death. Family and friends are convinced that had this untimely catastrophe not occurred, Wilson could have been Iowa's first woman governor. In 1982 the ICSW established the Cristine Wilson Medal for Equality and Justice. Her life serves as the standard by which the award's nominees are judged: a life of service and dedication. In 1989 Jane Barker, an employee of the commission who worked as a secretary, nominated Wilson for a posthumous medal. When Margaret Swan-son was awarded the medal in 2000, she and Wilson became the only mother and daughter to receive the award.
Sources The Iowa Women's Archives, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City, holds the papers for Governor Ray's Commission on the Status of Women and Betty J. Durden's "An Informal Retrospective of Iowa Governor Robert D. Ray's Commission on the Status of Women, 1969–1972," an unpublished history and compilation of relevant documents.
Contributor: Suzanne Araas Vesely