Karen Kedrowski plans to rest once 2020 is over. The new director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University figures the trifecta of major events and milestones between now and then – the Iowa caucuses and general election, the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote, and the 2020 census – will keep her occupied. Kedrowski came to the Catt Center from Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., where she was the executive director for the university’s Center for Civic Learning and the co-director of its John C. West Forum on Politics and Policy. Though formally trained as a congressional scholar, her career carried her into the areas of women and politics, health care, and academia, even working for a time as a dean. She spent several years in Washington, D.C., doing a fellowship in Congress and then working as a health policy analyst for Families USA. It was at the time President Bill Clinton was in office and introduced his health care bill. Her academic career began at Winthrop University, where she stayed for nearly 25 years. Now, she succeeds Dianne Bystrom, who retired in August after serving as the Catt Center’s director for 22 years. Kedrowski took over Jan. 1, just in time for the presidential nominating season to get rolling with multiple candidates coming to Iowa. She recently spent time by phone with the Business Record and talked about plans through 2020.


Tell us how you came to the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics. 

[At Winthrop University] over the next 24 years, I did a lot of different things there. I certainly went through the academic ranks; I wrote a book on breastfeeding policy and on breast cancer activism; and I did a lot of civic engagement work. I became department chair for 12 years, I worked on accreditation. I also was dean for a while and then I really tried to move the institution to capitalize on the early South Carolina primary by getting presidential candidates to come to campus and interact with our students. [Winthrop has about 6,000 students. Ten presidential candidates made a total of 13 stops in the 2016 election cycle.] So it was quite an exciting year. We had two nationally televised forums that were based on our campus. It was quite a joyride.

I found out about the job here about a year ago, and I knew Dianne, of course, professionally for some time. The job was interesting, and I applied, not expecting it to go anywhere. Then I had an offer, and it was just such a wonderful opportunity for me to really be able to do all of the kinds of things that I love, and to be able to return to the Midwest, which, you know, was becoming more important to me. There was also the opportunity to be a part of a much bigger institution with a research focus, and to take a very well-respected institution and to build its prominence even more. 

You have done a number of different things. Those who are interested in politics might be a little jealous.

This is kind of like winning a Super Bowl. It really is an extraordinary opportunity. I think in Iowa, they know in a general sense and sort of at an abstract level that they’re pretty privileged. But when you hear in the news media that four different presidential candidates are going to be coming nearby and that people have this expectation of “Well, I’m not going to vote for anybody that I haven’t met with or shook hands with,” that’s just an enormous privilege. There are 350 million people in the country, and only probably a few thousand even begin to have those kinds of expectations.

It’s fascinating for me to see as a new Iowan.

[When people heard she was moving to Iowa], they said, “Oh, you’re moving to a flyover state.” I said, “Maybe one year out of four or five.”

So what are you looking to do at the Catt Center? You just started Jan. 1, right?

I’m very new in the position. A lot of the things that the center does are really unique, you know, with the women and politics database and then monitoring the gender balance of boards. When I was interviewing I said, “You know, I don’t want to end any of those, because they’re all wonderful and they’re done really well.”

So in terms of where I see the Catt Center going, we’re looking at 2020, and for 2020 there’s just an amazing amount of stuff. First of all, we’re going to be covering the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which Carrie Chapman Catt was heavily involved with. The Catt Center will be participating in a statewide effort to coordinate a statewide celebration of that.

Secondly, I am looking to work with student organizations and student government and, you know, if my colleagues on the faculty side are interested in this, to help our students participate in the caucuses. We want to do so in a nonpartisan way. Clearly we are going to be providing information to our students who wish to to register Democratic and how to participate in the caucuses. But I want to be able to do something inclusive for students who are Republican or unaffiliated.

Third, we want to develop some strategies where we can really engage students, completing the census, understanding what the census is used for, getting our international students to be interested. 

And then, of course, all of this will lead into the general election, where we will be working on educating students about down-ballot races and helping to mobilize voters.

Beyond that, I want to see how we can use our research efforts to continue to raise the profile of the Catt Center. How can we develop and publicize the archives of women’s political communication, for example, so that scholars who are interested in rhetoric and communication and gender studies and political science will know that we have this absolutely amazing resource at their fingertips?

You have a lot of big goals.

In 2021, I’m going to sleep for the first three months.

What do you do in your free time?

In another life I might have been a professional flute player, but not this life. I’m a serious amateur, but for two and a half years before I moved here I played with the Carolina Wind Orchestra, which is a very high-level community band. … I’m happy to say that I found a similar group here who welcomed me without any questions and said, “Take a stand and sit down in the chair and go ahead.”