Dianne Bystrom retires as director of Catt Center after 22 years


Courtesy of Iowa State University

Dianne Bystrom is the director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center.

Devyn Leeson

Dianne Bystrom, the 22-year director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women in Politics, retired on Aug. 10. Following her retirement, Bystrom was inducted into the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame.

Karen Kedrowski will become the director of the Catt Center starting Jan. 1, 2019.

During her tenure as director, Bystrom has developed numerous programs, scholarships and resources related to women in politics, bringing the Catt Center to national relevance.

“I was at the University of Oklahoma for 17 years before coming to Iowa State,” Bystrom said. “There I worked in a large array of jobs including the assistant provost and in academic administration.”

When the job search started for a new director of the Catt Center in 1996, four years after the center had started, Bystrom said the fit could not have been better.

“I’ve always been interested in women’s issues,” Bystrom said. “My Ph.D. dissertation had actually been over the differences in media coverage between male and female political candidates and the differences between their political ads. I applied, interviewed and was offered the job in 1996 so it really seemed like it fit both my desire to continue as a college administrator while also being able to direct a program so near and dear to my heart by keeping women engaged in politics.”

When Bystrom took over the relatively new program, she said she had the opportunity to build upon new and existing programs.

“When I started out we didn’t have a lot of programs,” Bystrom said. “Only two of the original programs have continued through today. Those are the Legacy of Heroines scholarship and the Carrie Chapman Catt Prize for Research on Women in Politics.”

Under Bystrom’s leadership, the Legacy of Heroines scholarship program has more than doubled with around 25 to 26 scholarships being awarded a year. The Carrie Chapman Catt Prize for Research on Women in Politics funded six of around 84 research proposals last year at about $11,000 in total.

These programs have grown in size despite state funding to the Catt Center being cut in half since the time Bystrom took office. The Catt Center as a result now funds their scholarship and research programs entirely through private funds and donations which helps “protect the stability” of the center.

The Catt Center has cut programs due to budgetary constraints, namely a leadership workshop for high school students.

“What we started to realize was these high schoolers would come to our workshop and then, for the most part, go to other universities,” Bystrom said. “Having these workshops was great, but we really wanted to focus on Iowa State students.”

Bystrom said the changes at the Catt Center coincided with changes in the times and the needs of the Iowa State community as well as the changing national and state landscape.

While much has changed over the years, their mission has always stayed the same.

“I am proud to say our mission, to interest, educate and engage citizens, particularly women, in the political process, has stayed the same since I took the position,” Bystrom said.

Part of this mission for Bystrom has been to combine the practical aspects of women in politics with the research side of politics.

“I have been on both the practical side of politics and been on the research side of women in politics and that is something we need to combine,” Bystrom said. “All of the Catt Center programs have brought in these values [and] to allow for research but also bring in the the experiences of women in politics.“

This is evident in what Bystrom calls her most proud accomplishment; the archives of women in political communication, a resource with more than 2,000 speeches and political ads from more than 400 historical and contemporary women.

The archive, which started in 2006, was one of her goals when she took the job and now gets around 30,000 page views a month from scholars, teachers and people interested in politics.

“As someone with a degree in political communication I knew there was no place where someone could see an archive of women’s political speeches,” Bystrom said.

The unique archive has also brought Iowa State to national relevance Bystrom said. As the second oldest center for women in politics in the nation, women presidential candidates, senators, representatives and more have visited the Catt Center for its national recognition.

Bystrom said she decided her retirement partially based on how her career would be “bookended.”

The dean that hired Bystrom — Elizabeth Hoffman — was the first women dean of Iowa State’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the time, and now as Bystrom retires, her career will be bookended with the second women dean — Beate Schmittmann.

“As I was deciding when to retire I wanted to know how it would be bookended,” Bystrom said. “I wrote my dissertation on the 1992 election which is still known as the year of the woman because we had a record number of women who ran and got elected. That is still an election that is still really important to women.”

During the 1992 election, a record 106 women ran for the House of Representatives — a 54 percent increase over the previous year. Bystrom said that number in the 2018 midterm is 198, breaking the previous record of 167 women which was set in 2016. She said the number will continue to grow as more primaries unfold.

“This will be another record year that I can bookend my career on.” she said.