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Kansas’ first female regent made history

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012, at 8:14 p.m.

Ad Astra

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating the state’s history. The series’ name comes from the state motto, “Ad astra per aspera: To the stars through difficulties."

Nearly 131 years ago, Cora Downs of Wyandotte made history when she became the first woman appointed to sit on the University of Kansas Board of Regents.

The Republican governor at the time, John St. John, was a strong advocate of women’s rights. On Dec. 21, 1881, St. John wrote to Downs – a journalist and schoolteacher from Wyandotte – asking her to accept the position.

Her story, “A Just Recognition of Her Sex,” is told on the KU History page at the University of Kansas website.

At that time, a separate board of regents was assigned to each of the state schools. Each board had seven members, all male.

According to the website, St. John wrote to Downs 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.”

Downs wrote back, “I am moved and honored among women.”

She served for only 13 months.

In 1882, St. John was defeated by George Glick, who became the first Democrat to win the governor’s seat.

Glick quickly cleaned house. The new governor wrote to Downs’ brother-in-law, who had championed Cora Downs to stay on as a regent: “I do not regard (women) as competent to manage the business of these institutions. … 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,” according to the KU History website.

Although Downs stepped down, her name would not be forgotten in Kansas or KU’s history.

Beginning in 1915, her granddaughter, Cora Mitchell Downs, earned her bachelor’s at KU, then her master’s and doctorate. The KU History site indicates the younger Cora Downs became a KU professor in microbiology.

During her career, the younger Cora Downs led a team of World War II scientists in top-secret biological warfare research for the U.S. Army. While teaching, she also worked at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research and the National Institutes of Health at Oxford University.

The university honored the younger Cora Downs in its Women’s Hall of Fame at the Emily Taylor Center for Women and Gender Equality.

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com.

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