Guide to the Denise O'Brien papers

Collection Overview

Date Span: 1964-2006
Creator: O'Brien, Denise (1949-)
Extent: 9.20 linear feet.
Collection Number: IWA0156
Repository: Iowa Women's Archives
Summary: Organic farmer and political activist who served as president of National Family Farm Coalition.

Administrative Information

Alternate Extent Statement: Photographs and artifacts in Box 22
Oversize materials in map case

Access: The papers are open for research.

Use: Copyright held by the donor has been transferred to The University of Iowa.

Acquisition: The papers (donor no. 228) were donated by Denise O'Brien in 1994 and subsequent years.

Preferred Citation: Denise O'Brien papers, Iowa Women's Archives, The University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City.

Repository: Iowa Women's Archives
Address: 100 Main Library
University of Iowa Libraries
Iowa City, IA 52242
Phone: 319-335-5068
Curator: Kären Mason

Biographical Note

Denise O'Brien, organic farmer,political activist, and lobbyist, was born to Joe and Doris O'Brien on December 6, 1949 in Omaha, Nebraska and grew up in Atlantic, Iowa. O'Brien attended Atlantic High School and lived as an exchange student in Japan,an experience she credits with politicizing her. After graduating from Atlantic High School in 1968, she attended the University of Iowa for one semester and Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, the following year. After one year at Creighton, she moved to the San Francisco area, where she became involved in anti-war protests and the whole foods movement. She then moved to Vermont, where she lived in a rural setting for six years before returning to Atlantic in 1976. In Atlantic,she met and married Larry Harris; they had three children, Briana, Trevor, and Caia. O'Brien and Harris began an organic fruit and dairy farm on the Harris' family farm north of Atlantic, experimenting with various organic crops and livestock.

As low commodity prices and escalating interest rates led to widespread farm foreclosures, they became involved with the Prairie Progressive group from Adair County that included Daniel Levitas and David Ostendorf of Rural America, Inc. Denise O'Brien and Larry Harris hosted the first Iowa Farm Unity Coalition meeting in 1982, launching O'Brien's career as an activist with the Coalition. In addition, O'Brien joined the Farmers' Union and other groups. She was a board member of Prairie Fire Rural Action, initiating and directing its Women's Leadership Development Project. Recognizing the need for women in leadership roles, she served as president of the National Family Farm Coalition from 1993 to 1995. At that time, the Coalition represented thirty-nine family farm and rural advocacy organizations across the country. In 1990 she ran for Cass County Supervisor and in 1996 ran for a seat on the school board in the Atlantic district.

In 1995, O'Brien and her daughter Briana Harris attended the United Nation's International Conference on Women in Beijing, China. In June 1997, O'Brien spoke to the United Nations General Assembly at the Earth Summit Plus Five on behalf of the world's farmers, as one of the ten non-governmental speakers and the only United States citizen. Out of these experiences, O'Brien recognizedthe importance of developing a network of farm women to speak for and organize around the needs of women in agriculture. These efforts led her to create the Women, Food, and Agriculture Network (WFAN) in 1997; she served as its director from its inception. O'Brien has received numerous awards for her activism.

Content Description

The Denise O'Brien papers date from 1964 to 2006 and measure 9.2 linear feet. The papers are arranged in nine series, Biographical and family, Community involvement, Conferences, Correspondence, Organizational involvement,Resource files, Writings, Photographs, and Artifacts.

The Biographical and family series contains biographies, awards, resumés, an appointment book, and passports.In addition to O'Brien's schoolwork, English papers, a class reunion booklet, and newspaper clippings, the series includes sporadic farm records andcorrespondence with Briana Harris, who attended Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The Community Involvement series concerns O'Brien's activities with the United Methodist Church, the Atlantic School District, the PTA, her work with the Family Crisis Support Network in Atlantic, and files from her unsuccessful campaign for a seat on the Atlantic School Board. It also includes materials concerning school children's tours of the Harris-O'Brien farm.

The Conferences series consists of notes, programs, and other materials that O'Brien collected at local, national and international events such as conferences, campaigns, forums, and summits.

The Correspondence series contains both personal and organizational correspondence. Electronic mail and paper mail items are intermixed. Items of interest include letters from Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson. Correspondence to and from Briana Harris is located in the Biographical and family series.

The Organizational Involvement series consists of records and papers from organizations in which O'Brien has been a member, officer, or observer.

The Resource Files series contains books, magazines, newspaper articles, pamphlets, and memos maintained by O'Brien for informational purposes. These files concern agricultural organizations, agribusiness andenvironmental issues, Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH) and Bovine somatotropin(BST), the farm crisis and farm bills, General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade(GATT), health care and insurance, North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA),sustainable agriculture, and women's organizations.

The Writings series contains notebooks in which O'Brien recorded her thoughts and reactions during the many meetings and conferences that she attended, as well as professional writings and speeches. It also includes texts of testimony she presented at various public hearings.

The Photographs series contains photographs of O'Brien, members of her family, friends, and the farmstead.

The Artifacts series consists of nametags and pins from numerous conferences, as well as bumper stickers. It also includes a plaque for the Dixon Terry Leadership Award she received in 1992 from the Iowa Farm Unity Coalition.

Related Materials

Women Food and Agriculture Network (WFAN) (IWA).

Postings from the WFAN electronic listserv have been printed out by Iowa Women's Archives staff.

Detailed Description of the Collection

Browse by Series:


This collection is indexed under the following subject terms.

Personal Names:
O'Brien, Denise, 1949-
Harris, Briana
Harris, Larry

Corporate Names:
National Family Farm Coalition (U.S.)
World Conference on Women
United Nations General Assembly
Iowa Farmers Union
National Farmers' Union (U.S.)

20th century

Women in agriculture
Rural women
Rural girls
Rural families
Political participation
Women in nonprofit organizations
Farm life
Farm management
Political campaigns
Organic farming

Political activists

Geographic Names:
United States -- Iowa -- Atlantic
United States -- Iowa -- Cass County

Genre/Form of Materials:
Cultural artifacts
Personal papers
Slides (photographs)

Peace and Pacifism
Rural and Farm Women
Women, Politics and the Law