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Cunningham, Rosa Ethel
(February 19, 1890–May 25, 1987)

–civic leader, businesswoman, women's rights advocate, and World War II veteran—was born in Kansas City to George Ryland McKean and Emma (Behan) McKean. Rosa graduated from high school in Natchez, Mississippi, in 1906 and married Archibald Rutherford in 1907. The couple had one son, William, and later divorced. In 1918 Rosa married Missourian Edward Cunningham, who died in 1921, and Rosa, who remained single for the rest of her life, moved to Des Moines with her son.

    Cunningham supported herself most of her adult life, remaining in the labor force for nearly 70 years. She began her working career in 1913 as a cashier at South West Bell Telephone Company in Kansas, and was later named acting manager. Cunningham was praised for her performance, but she was not asked to fill the position permanently because, she was told, women were not able to handle certain aspects of the job. When Cunningham moved to Des Moines, she worked as an office manager at D. J. Joint Stock Land Bank from 1922 to 1928, before taking a position as an investment broker with V. U. Sigler Investment Company.

    In the mid 1920s Cunningham joined the newly formed Iowa Federation of Business and Professional Women, a chapter of the National Federation of Business and Professional Women (BPW). She served as president of the state chapter for the 1928-1929 term, chaired the state legislative committee during most of the 1930s, and held various national offices in the 1930s. Legislation was her focus because, Cunningham wrote in her report to the 1938 Iowa BPW convention, "It is the culmination of all we try to do."Cunningham first encountered the power of law in the 1920s, when the Iowa legislature considered a bill, similar to those already enacted in most states, to protect women workers. Among other provisions, the Iowa bill prohibited women from working past 5:00 p.m. Cunningham, who often worked past that hour, lobbied fiercely and successfully against the bill, telling legislators, "I've got to earn a living to support my child."In 1937 the BPW accepted the recommendation of its legislative committee, chaired by Cunningham, and endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), becoming the first national women's organization to do so.

    In 1943 Cunningham, at the age of 53, enlisted in the Women's Army Corps (WAC) and completed officer training at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. She had the unusual distinction of serving in the WAC while her son, William, later the Des Moines city treasurer, was serving in the navy. After she was discharged, Cunningham remained active in veterans' affairs. From 1955 to 1986 she was employed at the Veteran's Memorial Auditorium in Des Moines, where she kept Iowa's veterans' records and planned the annual Memorial and Veterans' Day services. She was active in the American Legion and in 1957 was elected commander of the Legion's Argonne Post in Des Moines. In 1978 Governor Robert Ray appointed Cunningham to the Commission on Veterans Affairs, and she was posthumously awarded Iowa's National Guard's Distinguished Service Medal, becoming only the seventh person to receive that award.

    In the early 1970s Cunningham enthusiastically joined the revived movement for women's equality. She was a founding member of the Iowa Women's Political Caucus (formed in 1973), where she served as parliamentarian, and, more important, as a mentor to a new generation of women intent on passing the ERA. Cunningham did not embrace the radical rhetoric and goals of the women's movement, but she did advocate the ERA– which to her meant women's right to work and be compensated on an equal basis with men–as ardently in 1977 as she had in 1937. In 1978 Governor Robert Ray appointed Cunningham to serve on the Iowa Commission on the Status of Women.

    Cunningham's volunteer activities spanned a wide range of civic organizations, including the Republican Party, the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), the Greater Des Moines Chamber of Commerce, the Mercy Otis chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), the League of Women Voters, the Iowa Federation of Women's Clubs, and Campfire Girls. Among her many awards and honors, in 1963 the Greater Des Moines Chamber of Commerce named her the "Working Woman of the Year," and in 1980 she was inducted into the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame. Rosa E. Cunningham died in Des Moines on Memorial Day in 1987 at the age of 97, one year after retiring from paid employment.
Sources Cunningham'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. An entry on Cunningham is included in Sara Mullin Baldwin, ed., Who's Who in Des Moines (1929). The Business and Professional Women of Iowa Records at the State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City, contain legislative committee reports written by Cunningham.
Contributor: Sharon Lake