May E. Francis

In 1922, two years after women obtained the right to vote, May E. Francis did what had been unthinkable. She became the first woman to be elected to a statewide post in Iowa. The pioneering educator, who ardently championed country schools, served as state school superintendent for four years and was known for enacting standards for rural educational facilities.

Francis, the daughter of farmer Henry Francis and his wife Adda, was born at Mapleton, Minnesota, and graduated from high school in Minnesota. She came to Iowa to teach in a one room school in Bremer County, earning a bachelor's degree at Iowa State Teachers College (now the University of Northern Iowa) in 1910, and served as superintendent of the Denver, lowa, schools. She advanced to the position of Bremer County school superintendent in 1915.

In 1919, her work overseeing and improving one hundred country schools led to a two-year statewide appointment as supervisor of such schools. During her appointment, Francis inspected more than 1800 one room schools of the ten thousand scattered across Iowa's landscape at that time. Francis drafted important legislation for establishing standard requirements for all country schools.

In 1921, living in Waverly, Francis announced her candidacy for state school superintendent, then won the Republican primary over two men, and defeated her Democratic opponent in 1922. One plank of her campaign was her opposition to school consolidation.

But Francis clashed with teacher groups and legislators, who accused her of "arbitrary handling" of her duties. A House of Representatives probe was nasty, although she was exonerated. Francis hoped for re-election but was defeated by another woman in the 1926 GOP primary for the post that is now filled by appointment. Francis moved to Texas, where she earned a doctoral degree at the University of Texas in 1934, later moving to New York City, where she oversaw adult education. Earlier she had earned a master's degree in teaching from Columbia University.

Francis, who wrote several children's books, returned to Iowa in 1942, where she decided again to run for the school superintendent post, this time as a Democrat. However, she lost.

She is buried at Littleton.

Copyright Tom Longden, Des Moines Register, March 30, 2003.


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