You may think you know a lot about Iowa, land of potatoes, home of the Buckeyes… (Just kidding! Those are Idaho and Ohio, respectively!) …home of the infamous straw poll, where slightly crazed conservatives voted highly-crazed Michele Bachmann the winner, where somehow a bunch of illiterate farmer-hicks get first-in-the-nation status for the presidential primary season. Perhaps, generously, you don’t think of the farmers as illiterate, but they must certainly be dour, a la Grant Wood’s famous painting American Gothic.
Well, you would be right about the crazed straw poll event, but hold your proverbial horses before you start making a bunch of other assumptions about Iowa or Iowans. Below the squiggle you will learn a more complete and accurate picture than the one featuring illiterate farmer-hicks, or even crazily regressive conservatives.
1. Iowa, the only state bordered by 2 major rivers (the Missouri on the west and the Mississippi on the east), is not as flat as you think. It’s actually covered with rolling hills, with elevation changing from a low point of 480 feet above sea level at the Mississippi River, to a high point of 1,670 feet above sea level near the Minnesota border. That’s an elevation change of 1,190 feet. Contrast this with states such as Illinois (956 feet elevation change), Florida (345 feet), and Indiana (937 feet.) Ask any of the 10,000 people who ride RAGBRAI, the annual bike ride crossing the state from west to east. In 2009 the total climb calculated for riders was 23,111 feet over almost 500 miles. We also have our own Pike’s Peak. If you ever drove through instead of flew over, you would know some of these things!
2. According to the 2010 census, Iowa has a population of over 3 million people, approximately 1% of the population of the U.S. as a whole. Of that, we are about 91% white, and a disproportionate share of the population is over age 65. We also have a higher rate of home ownership, a lower poverty level, a higher proportion of high school graduates, and a higher proportion of veterans than the average. We use less than our per capita “share” of federal spending. And the fun population fact is that hogs outnumber humans by approximately four to one.
3. From a religious standpoint, most Iowans self-identify as Protestant Christians, primarily Lutherans and Methodists. The second largest group is Catholics. A number of other religions are represented, as well, including those following Transcendental Meditation at Maharishi Vedic City, the Amish and Mennonites, Quakers, and German Pietists. Contrary to popular belief, Amish people are not from Amana.
4. Iowa has a rich history in music. Birthplace of Glenn Miller and Bix Beiderbecke, there has always been a strong jazz influence that carries on today. As far as I’ve been able to determine, Iowa is the only state that runs a state-sanctioned high school jazz contest, inviting the best jazz ensembles from all over the state. Iowa kids play jazz, and they play it at a high level. Iowa City is the home of the Iowa City Jazz Festival, all free all the time. In recent years the fest has hosted greats such as Dave Holland, Bill Frissell, Joshua Redman, Chris Potter, Trombone Shorty, John Scofield, Stefon Harris, and more.
5. Other famous Iowans come from a broad range of talents, including John Wayne, Donna Reed, Johnny Carson, and Andy Williams in entertainment; Norman Borlaug, Clyde Cessna, and Ted Waitt, pioneers in food science, aviation, and computers, respectively; Herbert Hoover, Henry Wallace, Tom Harkin, and the despicable Steve King in politics. In addition, Iowa City is the home of the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop, for 75 years nurturing talented artists from around the world. Graduates include Marilynne Robinson, Jane Smiley, and Robert Penn Warren; faculty have included Kurt Vonnegut, Philip Roth, and John Irving.
6. Known for educational excellence, Iowa compares well nationally in writing, science, math, and reading at all grade levels on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Iowans rank at the top on SAT scores, second in ACT scores, even with average spending per student and approximately 25 students per classroom. Though statewide curriculum standards are being phased in, local control of districts is a long-standing philosophy in K-12 education.
7. Iowa is neither blue nor red, but purple in politics. A year ago prior to statewide primary elections, there were about 710,000 registered Democrats, 608,000 registered Republicans, and 773,000 registered with no party. In the last five presidential elections, Iowans voted Democratic in four of them, making a huge mistake only in 2004 turning to GW Bush. Currently Iowa is represented by Democratic Senator Tom Harkin and Republican Senator Chuck Grassley. Our five congressional districts are split with three Democratic representatives and two Republicans. In the last 20 years there have been both Republican and Democratic governors. This is not a politically extreme state.
8. Though Iowans are predominantly white, Iowa is not backwards from a racial rights standpoint. As a free territory prior to statehood, Iowa always has been a leader. In 1851, only 116 years before the U.S. did, Iowa removed the ban on interracial marriage. In 1857, the Constitution codified that African-Americans had the same rights as every citizen. In 1868 the Iowa Supreme Court upheld education rights with a school desegregation case, 86 years before Brown v. Board of Education. The legislature enacted racial rights laws in 1884, finally tested and upheld in 1949, in a case against a segregating drug store.
9. Iowa also has been in the lead on rights based on gender. Married women were granted property rights in 1851, and women’s custody rights in divorce were initiated in 1867 (rather than defaulting to men’s custody in every case.) In 1869 the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that Arabella Mansfield could not be barred from practicing law due to gender, making her the first female lawyer in the U.S. In 1920 when women were granted the right to vote, in Iowa they also were granted jury duty eligibility, unlike in most states. On the other hand, Iowa has never had a female U.S. Senator or Representative, nor a governor that was a woman.
10. The history of Iowa has always been one of leadership in civil rights, including same-sex rights. In 1976 the Iowa Supreme Court struck down all sodomy laws, a ruling that was codified by the legislature in 1978. More famously, in April of 2009, Iowa’s Supreme Court unanimously ruled that banning same-sex marriage violates the equal-protection clause of the Iowa Constitution. After that ruling regressive Iowans, supported largely by out-of-state money, led a successful campaign against the retention of 3 of the 7 court justices last November. Supreme Court justice retention elections usually have low interest and participation, purely because the court is non-political and is conservative on the side of the constitution. Rarely is there controversy. Those who were highly motivated to vote did so against retention. Future attempts will include pushing for a “referendum,” amending the constitution, and passing legislation banning equal rights, with the hope that a Supreme Court with new composition will find it constitutional. Still, the flow of opinion is on our side and future attempts to overturn the ruling have little chance of success. Listen to this eloquent argument supporting equal rights by Zach Wahls, son of a same-sex partnership and marriage.
So no, Iowa is not red, it is not Southern, and it is not populated by regressive people from the South, snark not withstanding.
Iowa IS a place of thoughtful, well-educated people who work hard and value tolerance. Come to Iowa and meet some of us.