“A Just Recognition Of Her Sex”
According to the Topeka Capital, she was a “lady of education, energy, and fine executive talent” whose “literary taste and skill [were] of a superior order.” Renowned Kansas suffragette leader Clarina Nichols called her “a credit [to] her sex.” And the Atchison Daily Champion dubbed her the “dean of the faculty of literary ladies in the State.”
The object of this fulsome praise was Cora M. Downs of Wyandotte, a former teacher and well-known Kansas journalist who became the first woman to sit on the KU Board of Regents. Indeed, Downs very likely was the first woman anywhere in the nation to hold a post of this stature. Nominated by Republican Governor John P. St. John, her enthusiastic acceptance on December 23, 1881, was met, he said, with near “universal approval, not only by the people of Kansas but throughout the entire country.”
As it turned out, though, Downs’ tenure was both brief – a mere 13 months – and generally uneventful. St. John lost the 1882 gubernatorial election to Democrat George W. Glick, a man who aimed to repopulate the Board not only with his own people, but also with his own gender. Under his watch, resolved the new governor, no “ladies would be placed at the head of [state] institutions.” Women, claimed Glick, were not “competent,” and administrative tasks were “entirely out of their line of business.” With a man like this in the governor’s chair, Downs was out.
A native of Ulster County, New York, Cora Mitchell was a judge’s daughter who received her education at the Poughkeepsie Female Academy, one of the region’s “best literary institutions,” as the 1879 Kansas volume of the US Biographical Dictionary put it. She began her teaching career as head of the English Department at Ohio’s Glendale College, all the while honing her journalistic skills by being a regular contributor to local newspapers. Marriage in 1857 to Arthur Dwight Downs, also a native New Yorker, brought her to the town of Wyandotte in Kansas Territory the following year, where her husband soon established a thriving lumber business.
Arthur Downs would become active in local Kansas Republican politics. He “has always been a Republican,” reported the US Biographical Dictionary, “and is thoroughly known as one of the best and most reliable men in the State, sound on all questions of Republican policy.” In 1866, five years after Kansas entered the Union as the 34th state, he accepted a patronage appointment from President Andrew Johnson and became the postmaster – a highly prized federal job in those days – of Wyandotte (roughly, present-day Kansas City, Kansas).
Cora Downs, a staunch Republican herself, was also a close and savvy follower of political issues. After having two children between 1859 and 1861, she restarted her literary pursuits. “Her writing made clear her wide-ranging interests and her affection for Kansas,” noted an article about her in the October 1981 edition of Kansas Alumni. “She contributed many literary articles to The Kansas Magazine, and she wrote poetry, travel and feature columns for newspapers (one was headed ‘Letters from a Lady’) in Kansas, including the Lawrence Daily Journal.” In 1876, she became the special correspondent for the Republican Daily Journal of Wyandotte and went to Philadelphia to cover the Centennial Exposition.
What specifically brought her to the attention of Kansas Governor John P. St. John, a Republican first elected in 1878, is unclear, though evidence indicates her prolific writing talents and her support for prohibition, one of the governor’s principal causes, were both key factors. Equally likely was simply the fact that St. John, a strong supporter of women’s suffrage, saw in Cora Downs a person of ability, fine intellect, and a fellow Republican to boot. If given a gubernatorial appointment, she would move the women’s rights agenda forward – symbolically and substantively – by actively participating in state business and decision-making.
In 1880, when St. John won a landslide re-election to his second two-year term, women in Kansas were allowed to vote only in school board elections. And while Kansas could then boast a constitution that guaranteed more rights to women than any other state (only the territories of Wyoming and Utah were more progressive in this regard at the time), it would be seven years before women in Kansas could vote in city elections and hold municipal office, another 32 before they would achieve universal statewide suffrage, and four full decades before the 1920 passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.
The governor might not have been able to convince the male electorate in Kansas to grant women full suffrage (a state constitutional amendment to this effect had been defeated in 1867), but in his executive capacity he did control appointments to the state’s boards of regents. Cora Downs, he felt, would be a valuable addition.
During this period in Kansas history, a separate board of regents governed each state-supported institution of higher learning. Each individual board consisted of seven members. The governor appointed six of these, who, if confirmed by the state senate, would serve four-year terms. The seventh seat belonged to the chancellor of each particular institution.
In late 1881, as St. John was completing his third year in office, the Reverend Eugenius Nesbit of Leavenworth, whom the governor had appointed a KU regent earlier that year, resigned the position. By December 1881, St. John was searching for a replacement candidate. He set his sights on Cora Downs, someone who he apparently had earmarked in his mind for a seat.
“Several months ago,” he wrote to Downs on December 21, 1881, “I had some correspondence with you in relation to the propriety of appointing a woman as Regent of the State University. There is now a vacancy created by the resignation of Rev. Mr. Nesbit … and I have the honor to tender to you the appointment of Regent of the State University. Will you accept it?” he asked.
“If you do,” he continued, “you will be the first woman in the history of Kansas to hold such an appointment.” In addition to her particular qualifications, teaching experience, and GOP bona fides, St. John explained that he had “long been of the opinion that all of our State institutions where females are educated or cared for should have a woman as a member of the boards representing such institutions.”
Two days later, on December 23, 1881, Downs replied to the governor’s letter. “What shall I say,” she said, “except that I am much moved and ‘honored among women’ by your distinguished courtesy.” Humbly, she added, “I am only afraid that I am not sufficiently a representative woman of Kansas in all the graces that made a rounded character, and that I shall not confer sufficient credit on the appointment tendered to me.”
Nonetheless, to St. John’s question of “Will you accept it?” the answer was a resounding yes. After consulting with her pastor as well as her husband, Downs assured St. John that, in accepting, she would “try to be worthy of such valued consideration”; moreover, she deeply “appreciate[d] the high honor” bestowed upon her as the “first of my sex” to become a Kansas regent.
The governor cautioned Downs that her breaking of the gender barrier might cause serious unease in certain quarters. He also warned it might subject her, let alone St. John himself, to “sharp” and “severe” criticism from those with “narrow constructed brain[s].” But no matter, said the governor. He affirmed his belief that if state colleges and universities were to be coeducational institutions, its Boards of Regents must not be all-male preserves. Downs did express some apprehension about “newspaper attacks.” Nonetheless, she wrote the governor, “I have found Kansas public men, as a rule, to be gentlemen and disposed to be liberal towards women, and I will trust their chivalry and leave the rest to time.”
To smooth her transition, Governor St. John sought and obtained a ringing endorsement of Downs’ nomination from the state’s most prominent newspaper, the Topeka Capital, to which she regularly had contributed articles. The governor approached Henry King, the paper’s editor-in-chief, and coyly solicited his views on the idea of naming a female regent. King advised that “that in his judgment it would be all right.” St. John thereupon told the editor he had appointed Downs to the KU board, “and asked his hearty endorsement, which he very cheerfully gave.”
The Capital did indeed “heartily commend” the governor’s decision, noting that this was “the first appointment of a lady to such a position in Kansas, or in the country, so far as we know.” The paper also echoed St. John’s belief that “there is no reason why public institutions in which both sexes are interested should be managed exclusively by men,” especially since, in the field of education, “a large number of students and a fair share of the teachers are ladies.” Just to make certain no missed its drift, the Capital concluded by asserting, “We feel quite sure that she will make one of the most active and useful of the regents.”
Other newspapers followed the Capital’s lead, as St. John undoubtedly hoped would be the case. Downs garnered enthusiastic support from the Lawrence Daily Journal, to which she had also been a regular contributor, as well as from the Fort Scott Monitor. That paper commended her nomination “not only because of the personal worth and education of Mrs. Downs, but because it is a just recognition of her sex.”
One of the few dissenting opinions came from the Junction City Union, which somehow found a conspiracy angle in Downs’ appointment. This paper vehemently had opposed St. John’s successful efforts to pass the controversial prohibition amendment to the state constitution in 1880. Since Downs was also a prohibitionist, the Union thought something unseemly was afoot. The governor’s “female appointment to the regency,” it claimed, was part of a scheme to ensure that if Lawrence officials refused to enforce the prohibitory laws, the governor could then punish the city by manipulating Downs into cutting off or seriously reducing funding to the University.
Although the Union’s interpretation was a bit extreme, the fact is St. John was already gaining a national reputation for spearheading the anti-alcohol crusade in Kansas. (In 1884 he even would run for president on the Prohibition Party ticket.) On January 31, 1882, following his return from a prohibition-themed speaking tour back east, the governor was pleased to inform Downs that he had been “frequently congratulated by the ladies for the recognition thus given to [a] woman.” Regarding her impending duties, he simply advised her to “take hold of the work in a plain, practical business way, and I have no doubt you will succeed.”
Downs’ first day on the job was February 2, 1882, when the Board of Regents for the University of Kansas met in Lawrence with KU Chancellor James Marvin. Downs “took the oath of office at the Probate Court, then she and the other Regents visited classes during the morning, met with faculty members in the afternoon and were dinner guests” of the chancellor’s that evening, according to an article about Downs in the October 1981 edition of Kansas Alumni. While in Lawrence, Downs “stayed in the Eldridge Hotel, eliciting a mention in the society column [of the Lawrence Daily Journal], and visited classes again the following morning.”
Student newspapers also took notice of this visit. The University Courier reported that Downs “made the students a very pleasing and instructive address one morning in chapel.” In a much more in-depth piece, the Kansas Review noted, “The recent meeting of the Board of Regents for the purpose of visiting classes and acquainting themselves with the work done in the University was a pleasant one for all concerned.” The regents, it continued, “seemed well pleased with the methods of instruction as well as with the promptness and readiness with which the students recited. This is the first ‘visitation’ meeting the Regents have held for a number of years, and we hope thereafter they will give more attention to us in this way.” Such a hands-on approach, the Review felt, “will not only encourage professors and students but can [allow the regents to] get a very good idea of the real work being done here and also a … better knowledge of the general management of the University.”
Downs and her fellow regents convened five meetings during the course of 1882. The most prominent feature of their annual report was the recommendation that funds be appropriated for a freestanding chemistry building for KU. (At this point, the Chemistry Department was housed in the building now remembered as “old” Fraser Hall, and as the Kansas Review noted, there was a “growing prejudice against the odors that pervade the atmosphere,” disrupting other classes.) Another highlight of Downs’ year on the Board was the unanimous selection of William H. Carruth (half-namesake of Carruth and O’Leary Hall) as Professor of German and French Languages and Literature.
In the Kansas gubernatorial election of 1882, St. John was narrowly defeated in his bid for an unprecedented third term by Democratic challenger George W. Glick. Once the new governor took office in January 1883, all five male regents for the University of Kansas either voluntarily resigned or saw their four-year terms of office expire. In Cora Downs’ case, her appointment technically had been made to fill a vacancy. As such, her nomination had not been sent to the Kansas Senate for official confirmation.
However, on February 1, 1883, in a letter to the new governor, Downs tendered her resignation, too, and withdrew what she called her “nominal claim to the position.” Graciously, she add, “The next meeting of the Board of Regents occurs in March, and at that time I trust my colleagues may have the pleasure of welcoming my democratic successor.”
Glick, whose marble likeness represented Kansas in the US Capitol’s Statuary Hall from 1914 until 2003 (when he was replaced by Dwight D. Eisenhower), had little use for St. John’s Republican regents. He was the state’s first Democratic governor, and as KU historian Clifford Griffin has noted, Glick “promised even his Democratic cohorts that he would seek the best men regardless of party, but inevitably some Democrats seemed best.” On February 2, 1883, the new governor wrote Downs a rather terse, two-sentence response informing her that her letter of resignation “is at hand” and has been “placed on file.”
Although Downs had resigned, she may not have been entirely resigned to her fate. On her behalf, her brother-in-law, Maj. William F. Downs, a wealthy and influential railroad man and namesake of Downs, Kansas, wrote to Glick seeking her reappointment. The new governor would have none of it. In stark contrast to his liberally minded Republican predecessor, Glick was not at all interested in advancing the cause of women in public affairs.
“I regret to say,” he wrote Maj. Downs, “that it will be impossible for me to comply with your request. There is some opposition to her appointment, both from Regents and Senators, and I have decided not to send the name of any lady to the Senate for any appointments.” He continued: “I do not regard [women] as competent to manage the business of those institutions, where it requires the disposition of a large amount of money, where they have to act with men, remove professors [and] make contracts…. It is entirely out of their line of business, and I do not think that I would be doing justice to the State, were I to adopt a policy by which ladies would be placed at the head of those institutions.”
In Glick’s mind, women in positions of authority were likely to be “imposed upon” and taken advantage of, such that they could not be expected to discharge their responsibilities independently. The “appointment of ladies” ran fundamentally counter to his executive philosophy. As such, Glick had no intention of returning Downs to the board. Her 13-month pioneering tenure as the state’s first woman regent came to an abrupt end. But, it was nothing personal. Only one of St. John’s appointees to the KU Board of Regents survived Glick’s thorough housecleaning – largely by default – and even Chancellor Marvin was maneuvered into resigning in June 1883.
The departure of Downs and most of her fellow regents did not detract from their major accomplishment. In June 1883, the state legislature endorsed their recommendation for a new KU chemistry building, and appropriated $12,000 for its construction. Known as Chemical Hall, it became KU’s third structure and was ready for occupancy by year’s end.
As for Downs herself, in 1884, she and her husband Arthur decided to divorce, an exceedingly rare occurrence in those days. “Her proper demeanor and the esteem of her many friends enabled her to endure the scandal with an unsullied reputation,” as Kansas Alumni explained in the October 1981 issue, and she continued her literary and journalistic pursuits.
In 1893, she was named to the board of managers for the Kansas Pavilion at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. This experience briefly reunited her with KU, as the Kansas Pavilion featured Professor Lewis Lindsay Dyche’s Panorama of North American Mammals, a version of which is now on permanent display at the KU Natural History Museum. In her later years, Downs remarried and resided in Kansas City. She died in 1915.
But her name lived on through her granddaughter, Cora Mitchell Downs, the eminent twentieth-century scientist. In 1924, nine years after the death of her namesake, this second Cora Mitchell Downs became the first woman to earn a PhD degree (in bacteriology) at the University of Kansas. Dr. Downs would teach at KU, initially as an instructor, later as a full professor of microbiology, from 1917 until her retirement in 1963.
During that time, she developed disease diagnosis techniques that have saved countless lives and revolutionized doctors’ abilities to identify and quickly combat viral and bacterial infections. Until her death in 1987, Downs helped fight disease outbreaks in Russia, headed a “top-secret research station at the Army Biological Laboratories at Fort Detrick, Md.,” and even held a “consultant commission with the Public Health Service which [gave] her rank and privileges equivalent to that of a brigadier general.”
Through all her successes, though, Dr. Downs took care never to forget her roots. To an audience in 1971, she spoke of remembering her grandmother, who was “very interested in newspapers and current events, in the theatre and politics,” as a “stout little woman in rustling black silk who always wore a bonnet when she came to visit us.” She was, her granddaughter added with pride, “the first woman regent” for the University of Kansas.
John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas