116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
As the midterm elections approach, we have been thinking about the importance of our shared civic responsibilities. Sometimes, it can feel as if it is impossible to advocate for and inspire real change. But in reality, committed individuals with a desire to serve can improve the lives of those in their immediate community and well beyond.
To explore that idea more fully, we are sharing excerpts from two of The History Center’s Oral Histories LIVE! program (which the elder of your two writers hosts). We’ll dip into the conversations with former Cedar Rapids Mayor Lee Clancey and Dr. Julianne Thomas — women who broke barriers in Linn County and whose commitment to public service included entering the political arena.
In 1996, Lee Clancey, the president/CEO of the Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, became the first woman to be elected mayor of Cedar Rapids.
In late 1999, the City Council held three public hearings — at Jefferson, Washington and Kennedy high schools — about whether to add sexual orientation to the local civil rights ordinance banning discrimination in workplaces, housing, education, credit and public accommodation.
The hearings, according to Clancey, were largely civil — but the community conversation had a major impact on the mayor’s thinking about the issue. As she recalled during the Oral Histories LIVE! conversation:
“I heard some things over the course of those three weeks that I had never heard in my life. And they were really ugly. Really, really ugly. … And I was so appalled that when it came time to vote, the vote was two to two, and I had to break the tie vote. There was no question how I was going to vote by the end of the public hearings, and I voted in favor of adding that to the Civil Rights Commission ordinance. However, it had enormous blowback.”
That blowback came in the form of being “fired in public.” Clancey was not re-elected in 2001. But she had moved the needle forward for civil rights in the community.
Thomas came to Cedar Rapids in 1974 as the first female pediatrician in the city.
Throughout her career, she worked to improve access to health care — and that meant working to change and improve health care policies.
For example, she was instrumental in the enactment of the 48-hour-stay legislation that prevented insurance companies from rushing new mothers home from the hospital after giving birth and in the development of Iowa’s State Child Health Insurance Program (Hawk-i).
During the Oral Histories LIVE! interview, she noted the Academy of Pediatrics — she was the first female president of the academy’s Iowa chapter — had developed a model bill for the 48-hour-state legislation.
“There were two women legislators — Rep. Minnette Doderer in Iowa City and (Sen.) Maggie Tinsman from the Quad Cities — who were interested in this,” she said. “They had a forum in the Iowa City library. I went and I took the model bill to them, and they were really thrilled that it was already written. And they adopted it almost word for word. So I helped them shepherd that legislation through the Iowa state Legislature.”
Thomas’ passion on this issue came directly from her experience caring for women and children.
“When I would walk in to make nursery rounds, mothers would be on the phone just exhausted, and they would be talking to the insurance companies. I felt that really wasn’t right that they had to try to appeal to insurance companies to have some time after they delivered a baby.”
Thomas would go on to run for Congress, narrowly losing to longtime U.S. Rep. Jim Leach in 2002. Still, her diligent work to improve the lives of Iowans via advocacy to lawmakers was of great importance.
Admittedly, these stories of improving the lives of those who live in Linn County happened more recently than most of the events we write about in this space. We would argue that makes the stories relevant and powerful.
Major changes involving equity and putting people over profits have been made in the not-so-distant past in Linn County. It is a reminder that when we are civically engaged, we can help engender positive changes — and that some of those changes are downright historic in nature.
We encourage you to vote Nov. 8 — which also happens to be the date of the next Oral Histories LIVE! event, featuring artist Stan Wiederspan, at The History Center.
Jessica Cline is a Leadership & Character Scholar at Wake Forest University. Her dad, Rob Cline, is not a scholar of any kind. They write this monthly column for The History Center. Comments: HistoricalClines@gmail.com