The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


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Francis, May Elizabeth
(November 2, 1880–April 3, 1968)

–teacher and educational administrator—was born near Mapleton, Minnesota, the daughter of Henry and Ada (Van Tuyl) Francis. Her farm family included three sisters and two brothers. Francis excelled in school, graduating from Blue Earth County High School, Minnesota, in three years. She wanted to be a doctor, but could not afford the required education. Instead, Francis chose to become a teacher.

    Francis began her career in a one-room school in Bremer County, Iowa, and attended summer school at Iowa State Teachers College, graduating in 1910. She quickly advanced through the teaching/administrative ranks. She taught in graded elementary schools in Hazleton and Sanborn and in high schools in Spencer and Anamosa before moving into administrative positions at Mount Pleasant High School and West Union High School and at Denver, where she was superintendent. From 1915 to 1919 she was Bremer County Superintendent of Schools, overseeing nearly 100 one-room country schools. She worked hard to improve school buildings, upgrade textbooks, and help teachers improve their skills.

    She gained recognition for her work, and in 1919 Iowa Superintendent of Public Instruction P. E. McClenahan recruited her to serve as state inspector of rural schools. That same year she drafted the Iowa Standard School Law, which was approved in 1919, and then wrote the regulations to implement it. Over the next two years, she visited nearly 1,800 of the more than 10,000 one-room schools in the state and worked closely with county superintendents, whom she trained to evaluate the country schools under the law. If the schools scored 80 points on the 100-point checklist, they received a certificate, a brass oval door plate, and $6 per student.

    Through this effort, Francis built a base of political support with educators and legislators. In 1921 she decided to use that support to run for State Superintendent of Public Instruction. A key issue in the campaign was what to do with the more than 10,000 one-room schools in the state. Francis's opponents, along with the educational establishment and the Iowa State Teachers Association (ISTA), favored school consolidation. Francis disagreed. She believed that taxpayers "should not be called upon to expend millions of dollars for palatial school buildings. Rather, we should improve buildings and equipment, and with less of the taxpayers' money, lift the standard rural school to a place of paramount importance in our educational system."Those views struck a responsive chord with farmer facing tough economic times. Women, who had gained the right to vote for the first time in 1920, also added their support. Francis emerged as the upstart victor and went on to defeat her Democratic challenger, Himena Hoffman, in the general election, marking the first time a woman was elected to statewide office in Iowa.

    Her term as State Superintendent of Public Instruction was marked by controversy. She encouraged country schools to participate in the standard school program and urged the legislature to increase funding for the program. She also insisted that high school teachers must complete at least two years of college. As "the first State Superintendent in more than a generation not to tout school consolidation as the only effective means of improving the quality of rural schools" (according to historian David Reynolds), Francis aroused the ire of the educational establishment, which began organizing to defeat Francis as soon as she took office. They recruited Agnes Samuelson, another woman who had started her teaching career in a one-room school, to run against Francis. The two talented, politically savvy women squared off in the Republican primary in 1926 to determine who would be the party's candidate for State Superintendent. Following a heated campaign in which school consolidation was again a key issue, Francis narrowly lost her reelection bid.

    That defeat forced Francis to move in new directions that would help her gain national recognition as an educator and author. She spent the next three years teaching at Ellsworth Community College in Iowa Falls. After taking four years to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Texas in 1934 (she had earned an M.A. from Teachers College, Columbia University, in 1922), Francis undertook a varied career of teaching, government work, writing, and a final run for political office. From 1936 to 1941 she was director of adult education for the New York City schools. From 1941 to 1944 she worked for the federal government as an agricultural specialist. During that time, she took a leave of absence to return to Iowa to run again for State Superintendent of Public Instruction—this time as a Democrat. But her political base had dissipated, and she proved to be no match for the popular Republican incumbent, Jessie Parker, in 1942.

    Francis went back to Washington, D.C., to work as an economic analyst for the Manpower Administration. She also taught at Chevy Chase Junior College in Washington, D.C., and was a professor of economics and English at the College for Women at Lutherville in Maryland from 1946 to 1948. She then returned to Iowa and lived in Waterloo until her death in 1968.

    Francis authored a variety of books and teaching resources, including two civics texts published by the Iowa Department of Public Instruction during her term as State Superintendent, a fourth-grade spelling book, and two historical novels, the most popular of which was Jim Bowie's Lost Mine (1954).

    In 2003 Francis was inducted into the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame.
Sources include David R. Reynolds, There Goes the Neighborhood: Rural School Consolidation at the Grass Roots in Early Twentieth-Century Iowa (1999); George Mills, Rogues and Heroes from Iowa's Amazing Past (1972); "Iowa's Three Candidates for State Superintendent of Public Instruction," Midland Schools 36 (April 1922), 281–82; William L. Sherman, "The Iowa Standard School Law: A Turning Point for Country Schools," Iowa Heritage Illustrated 82 (2001), 132–38; and Richard N. Smith, Development of the Iowa Department of Public Instruction 1900–1965 (1969).
Contributor: William L. Sherman