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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Hillis, Cora Bussey
(August 8, 1858–August 12, 1924)

–clubwoman and child welfare advocate—exemplified the American upper-class woman raised in the Victorian era, energized by the women's club movement, and fulfilled by the reform spirit of the early 20th century. Born in Bloomfield, Iowa, she was educated at a private girls' school in New Orleans, where her parents moved after the Civil War. (Her father, Cyrus Bussey, was a Union brigadier general.) She married attorney Isaac Hillis in 1880 in Iowa, and they soon established themselves in social and political circles in Des Moines.

    Initially embracing the roles of wife and mother, Hillis sought greater stimulus through women's clubs, cofounding the Des Moines Women's Club in 1886. In her first ventures into what would become her lifelong crusade—child welfare–she joined the new Iowa Child Study Society; established a safe public swimming facility for Des Moines children; convinced the National Mothers' Congress to choose Des Moines over 15 other cities for its third conference; and helped organize mothers' clubs across Iowa. She was the first president of the Iowa Congress of Mothers (later the Congress of Parent-Teachers Associations). She served on the Country Life Commission and chastised rural Iowans for caring more about their livestock than children. In Des Moines, she started fresh-air camps and helped with city beautification. Following the lead of other states, she lobbied for an Iowa juvenile court system that would separate juveniles from adults during detainment and in prison. The bill she cowrote passed, but in a form allowing counties to establish juvenile courts, and without appropriations for probation officers or separate detention facilities.

    Between 1901 and 1908 she nurtured a new vision—a research institute dedicated to the scientific study of children. Hillis was an efficient, aggressive, relentless, and skilled organizer and crusader (and, to many, headstrong, pushy, and uncompromising), but her innovative idea of a child research institute gained little attention at a time of ideological power struggles among women's organizations divided over suffrage, and between conservative Standpat Republicans and progressive Republicans. Nevertheless, with her characteristic moxie she approached Iowa State College, likening her idea to its agricultural research station. Rebuffed twice by the college, she turned to the State University of Iowa, which was eager to raise its profile as a research university. But the dean of the graduate college, psychologist Carl Seashore, had an opposing vision of child research. He wanted to study the abnormal child in a psychopathic hospital at the university. Hillis operated in the reformer's spirit of "saving the child" through improvement of parenting, homes, and schools, "before disease, and drink, and crime, and wrong living, have wrecked human life."The two locked horns repeatedly, until research-minded university president Thomas Macbride forged a compromise between the intellectually driven Seashore and the practical-minded Hillis. Seashore would get his psychopathic hospital, and Hillis would have Seashore's support for the research station.

    In 1915 Seashore joined Hillis and her other supporters in pushing for legislative approval of the research station and an annual appropriation of $100,000. Despite her savvy and influence, the idea failed. On the surface, the research station had some general support, but road improvements occupied the legislature. They tried again in 1917. Historian Hamilton Cravens calls Hillis a "hustler, cajoler, and broker, [who used] her rural allies in the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and urban allies in the Iowa Federation of Women's Clubs to line up support."The bill passed both houses. "Hillis's behind-the-scenes horse-trading had succeeded brilliantly."

    Established in 1917 and first directed by Bird Baldwin, the Iowa Child Welfare Research Station at the State University of Iowa was mandated to conduct research on normal children, train graduate students in child welfare, and disseminate its research. It was the first of its kind in North America to focus solely on normal children and was soon amassing research data on the physical and mental development of children. Baldwin's intent was the social application of the science of child development, rather than Hillis's and other reformers' efforts to "save" needy children. Renamed the Institute of Child Behavior and Development in 1964, it was dismantled a decade later.

    Personal tragedies wove their way through Hillis's public life. Of the five children born to Cora and Isaac, three died in childhood. During the same period, her adult sister, who had a disability and whom she took care of for years, died. In her 60s and widowed, Hillis still traveled widely championing child welfare. She died at age 66 in a car accident.
Sources The Cora Bussey Hillis Papers are in Special Collections, State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City. See also Hamilton Cravens, Before Head Start: The Iowa Station and America's Children (1993); and Ginalie Swaim, "Cora Bussey Hillis: Woman of Vision," Palimpsest 60 (1979), 162–77.
Contributor: Ginalie Swaim

Cite as: Swaim, Ginalie. "Hillis, Cora Bussey" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 19 December 2014