Time Machine

Time Machine: Imogen Emery

Cedar Rapids' first female lawyer practiced before women gained right to vote

Gazette archive photo

Imogen Emery, the first woman lawyer in Cedar Rapids, was photographed in her office in the Higley building in October 1954.
Gazette archive photo Imogen Emery, the first woman lawyer in Cedar Rapids, was photographed in her office in the Higley building in October 1954.

CEDAR RAPIDS — Imogen B. Emery made her mark on women’s rights long before she had the right to vote.

Imogen was the first female attorney in Cedar Rapids in 1913 and the first woman to join the Linn County Bar Association. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution giving women the right to vote was passed by Congress in 1919 and was ratified on Aug. 18, 1920.

Imogen Mossaline Benson set her sights on becoming a lawyer after a teacher encouraged her in high school in Denver, Colo. The teacher advised Imogen to learn the typical secretarial skills other girls were learning so that she could work her way through college.

Imogen started college at Capitol City Commercial College in Des Moines. After she landed a job with the registrar at the University of Iowa, she completed her coursework in Iowa City. She was elected secretary of a newly organized professional women’s league at the university the year before she earned her law degree in 1910. At the same time she became involved in the Pilgrim Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in Iowa City.

For the next three years, she worked as secretary to two UI presidents, Dr. George E. MacLean and John G. Bowman.

She married Irving Cass Emery Jr., a Cedar Rapids merchant, in 1913 at her parent’s home in Denver. The newlyweds spent three weeks honeymooning in the mountains of Colorado before making their home at 1500 Bever Ave. SE in Cedar Rapids.

Irving was the son of pioneer Cedar Rapids grocer I.C. Emery Sr., and Emma Turner Emery, the sister of John B. Turner. He returned home to manage his father’s store and serve as president of the Retail Grocers’ Association.

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Imogen, as a new bride, was expected to stop working. She remained active in the D.A.R., moving her membership to the Ashley Chapter in Cedar Rapids, but she wasn’t content to sit at home, so she got a secretarial job at the Grimm and Trewin law office.

Cedar Rapids formed an Americanization Council in 1920 to promote nationalization and patriotism among foreign-born citizens. One of the 21 local groups in the organization was the D.A.R., and as spokesperson, Imogen advised the council to focus on conducting classes and encouraging patriotism among school children. Her advice resulted in the Community House headed by Jane Boyd.

Imogen was appointed first deputy clerk of the district court in 1927, serving in that capacity until 1933, when she was admitted to the local bar association, opened her own law office in the Higley building, and began practicing. She also held membership of the Iowa State Bar Association and the National Association of Women Lawyers.

The Emerys adopted a little girl, Freda Stevens Emery, who was born in 1911 in Massachusetts. Freda attended Johnson School, Coe College, and was active in the D.A.R. with her mother.

Imogen became the state regent of the Iowa D.A.R. in 1936 and went to the annual Continental Congress of the National Society of the D.A.R. at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., that April. She kept in contact with the Iowa group by letter. Two years later she went to the Continental Congress as the national chairman of defense through patriotic education. Imogen’s mother, Eva Benson of Denver, was in Cedar Rapids to attend the D.A.R. event at the Roosevelt Hotel featuring her daughter, as was Freda, who was home for the weekend from her teaching job at Rockford, Ill.

One of the highlights of Imogen’s law career was when she was admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court, taking her oath before Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes in 1940.

By 1942, Imogen Emery’s position on discrimination against women was well known. She was past regent of the D.A.R., current president of the Daughters of the American Colonists and president of the Cedar Rapids chapter of the Quota Club, a national women’s service organization. She became president of the International in 1949.

She gave a speech on “Career Women of Early Iowa” at a Cedar Rapids Woman’s Club meeting in February 1944 from material she was gathering for a book about notable Iowa women, including women’s suffrage leader Amelia Bloomer and the first female secretary of state, Mrs. Alex Miller.

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“You know,” she told a Gazette reporter, “I was astounded at how many really outstanding women are Iowans.”

Freda enlisted in the Waves in 1944. Four years later, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and was institutionalized at Veterans Hospital in Downey, Ill., until she died in 1972.

Imogen and Irving moved to Mount Vernon in 1946, after Irving retired from his grocery business.

The Emerys corresponded with and provided assistance to another girl, Eva Maria Gabor, and her mother in the Russian zone of post-war East Germany starting in 1947. When the packages the Emerys were sending attracted the attention and suspicion of Russian authorities, the Gabors fled to West Germany.

Imogen became a widow when Irving died in 1955. She once told a reporter, “He was nice to live with. He was a good balance wheel for me.”

Before Eva’s mother died in 1957, she arranged with Imogen to have Eva come to Iowa. Iowa law allowed one adult to adopt another, and Imogen promptly adopted Eva.

With degrees from Cornell in Mount Vernon and the University of Iowa, Eva became a German instructor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, where she met Paul Parnell, a professor of English. The two were married in 1970.

Imogen, who was born in Illinois on Aug. 27, 1887, died on Dec. 23, 1974, in Mount Vernon, and was buried beside her husband in Oak Hill Cemetery.

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