Iowa Women's Archives
RUTH SCHARNAU (1933- )
Ruth Ellen Cotter Scharnau, teacher and civil rights and community activist, was born in 1933 in Waukesha, Wisconsin. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1957 with a BS in speech therapy. She married Ralph Scharnau and they lived in DeKalb, Illinois, while he completed his PhD in history at Northern Illinois University. The Scharnaus had three children: Andrea, Keith, and Gregg. In 1970, the Scharnau family moved to Dubuque when Ralph Scharnau took a position in the history department at the University of Dubuque. Ruth Scharnau worked as a speech therapist in the Galena, Illinois, schools for many years and later worked with children who had behavioral disorders.
Ruth Scharnau was very active in her community of Dubuque, Iowa. She served on the Dubuque Human Rights Commission from 1972 to 1973, but resigned to protest the lack of resources committed to the Commission. Scharnau became involved in the women’s movement in the early 1970s, and was a charter member of the Dubuque chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW), which was established in 1974; she served as president of Dubuque NOW in 1978. Working to pass the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was one of Scharnau’s main political activities in the 1970s and early 1980s. She was also a proponent of gay and lesbian rights, civil rights, and nuclear disarmament. She participated in the first gay rights rally in Dubuque in the fall of 1988, and attended a protest at the School of the Americas in Ft. Benning, Georgia, in 2001. In 2002, the Dubuque branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) honored Scharnau with the Ruby Sutton award.
Scope and Content Note
The Ruth Scharnau papers date from 1973 to 2005 and measure 2.5 linear feet. The papers are arranged in four series: Personal, Issues and activities, Correspondence, and Photographs.
Scharnau is a subject in Louise Noun's book, More Strong-Minded Women: Iowa Feminists Tell Their Stories (1992). The Personal series (1973-1997) includes correspondence between Scharnau and Louise Noun, and a draft of Noun’s chapter on Scharnau. This series also contains the obituary of Louise Herron Halliburton, an artist and activist from the Dubuque area with whom Scharnau was friends.
The Issues and activities series (1973-2005) is arranged alphabetically and contains many documents such as meeting minutes, notes by Scharnau, brochures, general information, newspaper clippings, flyers, and newsletters related to Scharnau’s involvement with local groups and issues. Also included are many published letters to the editor written by Scharnau, and some newspaper clippings include photos of, or quotes from, Scharnau.
The focus of Scharnau’s activities was largely local. For instance, the environmental folder contains information on protests against large hog confinements in eastern Iowa. The gay and lesbian rights folder includes a letter Scharnau wrote to the proprietor of a local restaurant; Scharnau tells him that she and her husband will never patronize his restaurant again because of the comments he made to her about gay people in San Francisco when she last dined at his establishment.
Scharnau was a program committee member for “Faces and Voices,” an annual conference sponsored by the city of Dubuque and the Dubuque Human Rights Commission at the request of concerned citizens following racial violence and Ku Klux Klan (KKK) activities in Dubuque in the early 1990s; both the “Faces and Voices” and the human relations conference folders relate to Scharnau’s participation in organizing this annual conference. The folder on sex discrimination inclues a speech Scharnau gave when she was a member of the Human Rights Commission. The September 11, 2001 folder consists mainly of email exchanges among family member on the significance of that day’s events.
The Correspondence series (1973-2005) is organized into general, personal, and political correspondence, although the personal and political intersect a great deal. The general correspondence consists of letters to and from Scharnau concerning the issues with which she was involved and some correspondence she wrote or received as an officer in Dubuque NOW and the Dubuque Human Rights Commission. Personal correspondence includes the letters and cards exchanged with her immediate and extended family. The political correspondence consists of letters to and from local, state, and national legislators concerning issues of importance to Scharnau.
The Photograph series (c. 1970s) consists of photos taken at a national ERA rally in Springfield, Illinois. Several photos depict women and men marching with large banners saying, “Iowans for ERA.”
National Organization for Women, Dubuque Chapter Records
Louise Rosenfield Noun Papers
Sister Gwen Hennessey Papers
For more information about this collection contact the Iowa Women's Archives.
Iowa Women’s Archives, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City IA 52242.
Page created January 2007.