Women have played essential roles in the development of the Des Moines Chamber of Commerce throughout the 20th century, although it’s only been in recent decades that they have risen to top positions and received credit for their efforts.
I’ve been looking into the history of the chamber this year as it prepares to celebrate its 125th anniversary.
One of its earliest claims to fame was that it was the first commerce organization in the country to admit women as full-fledged members in 1907, 19 years after its founding in 1888 and 13 years before the ratification of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote in 1920.
Des Moines also claims to be the first chamber of commerce to create a women’s department in 1920.
In fact, women played significant roles in many of the chamber’s signature efforts, such as making connections with rural Iowa, pushing for city beautification, promoting economic education and establishing the tradition of bringing in top-tier speakers to keynote annual dinners.
As World War II was getting underway, the chamber played a key role in persuading the Army to establish its first Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) Training Center at Fort Des Moines.
Much later, in 1987, then-Business Record publisher Connie Wimer (current owner of Business Publications Corporation Inc.) was the first woman to hold the chamber’s top elective position. In the late 1990s, telephone executive Teresa Wahlert and newspaper publisher Barbara Henry played leading roles in the creation of the Greater Des Moines Partnership, which is now the chamber’s parent organization.
For much of the chamber’s history, though, women received little or no recognition.
A 21-page history of the chamber’s first 50 years prepared by longtime chamber executive John D. Adams contains only two references to women, noting the years when the first two women – they are not named - became full-fledged members (1907) and when the women’s department was established (1920).
A separate four-page history of the chamber’s women’s department written in 1946 provides more details about goals and structure and one minor variance. It says women were first admitted in 1906, one year earlier than the Adams history.
Wimer said that by the time she joined the chamber in the 1970s, she viewed the women’s department as “totally separate and looked down upon.” In fact, she said, she was never a member of that group, choosing instead to create and head a small business committee.
Back then, she said, few women owned their own businesses and there were virtually no women in the top executive ranks of large corporations.
“Today, things have changed dramatically,” Wimer said.
Women still have a long way to go to achieve equality in the workplace. But the business and social scene now is much different from the 1950s and ‘60s, when the most visible women in the community were the wives of leading businessmen, lawyers and doctors.
Today, Iowa retains a somewhat bipolar attitude toward working women. The state has the highest percentage of two-income households, probably because of our rural heritage, but Iowa is one of only two states that have never elected a woman to be governor or a member of Congress.
Nonetheless, the chamber has done well by women in recent years. When Wahlert retired in 2002 from the telephone company – her last posting with what was then called Qwest Communications International Inc. was Arizona – she returned to Des Moines as chief executive of the Greater Des Moines Partnership, the agency she had helped birth three years earlier.
And when Wahlert left the Partnership in 2004 to run businessman Marvin Pomerantz’s properties, Martha Willits, a music teacher turned politician turned nonprofit executive, took over and ran the show until she retired last year.