Like-minded women

Friends in Council celebrates 150 years

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Elizabeth Perkins Leonard’s zest for teaching and learning led her to Lawrence in 1869, when Chancellor John Fraser hired her as the first woman to teach at the young University of Kansas. 

Elizabeth Perkins Leonard
Elizabeth Perkins Leonard

The New Englander also possessed considerable courage: She had first visited Lawrence in August 1863. On Aug. 21, she witnessed the terror of Quantrill’s Raid, when marauders murdered nearly 200 men and boys and burned the town. Leonard had arrived that summer to visit her schoolmate, Sara Lawrence Robinson, and Sara’s husband, Charles, who had led Kansas as its first governor and would become one of the University’s founders. On that dreadful morning, Charles happened to be out of town and Quantrill’s gang inexplicably spared the Robinsons’ home, north of the Eldridge Hotel on Massachusetts Street.

As KU’s fifth faculty member, Leonard became professor of language (French and German), painting and art, earning an annual salary of $1,600—the same as KU’s other professors. Two years into her tenure, she resolved to share her abiding spirit of inquiry with other local women; on Dec. 5, 1871, she invited nine women to her apartment to form Friends in Council (FIC). She had belonged to such a group in Quincy, Illinois, where she had taught at a seminary for women. 

Fifteen decades later, the club’s current 32 members believe FIC to be the oldest women’s study group west of the Mississippi. Through the years, most members have been affiliated with KU as alumnae, faculty, staff members or their spouses. Among the charter group in Leonard’s apartment was Jane Appleton Aikens Snow, whose husband, Francis, was a professor and later chancellor. Four other chancellor’s wives also have been members through the years. 

This year’s president is Kathryn Nemeth Tuttle, d’72, PhD’96, a longtime KU administrator who joined in 2018: “I continue to be amazed by the intellectual curiosity of my fellow members.” Tuttle says. “It is invigorating and inspiring to know we are linked to similar women over 15 decades.”

Leonard’s legacy so inspired local historian and playwright Betty Laird, ’66, that in 2008 she wrote a play, “A Song on the Wind,” about KU’s first female professor. Laird, who joined FIC in 1960, also prepared a paper that she presented in 2017, on the club’s 145th anniversary. Quoting historian Hannah Oliver, Laird described Leonard’s  “noble presence” and “vigorous and penetrative” mind. Laird noted that Chancellor Fraser had urged the handful of young women studying at KU in the early years to emulate Leonard.

Friends in Council

Scholarly papers are among the club’s enduring traditions. Each year the group selects a study theme for papers they present at meetings, hosted by members three Tuesdays monthly through most of the academic year. Themes have spanned history, cultures, literature, the arts, geography, natural science, architecture, religion and more. This year members will explore, in no particular order, the history and culture of each of the past 15 decades.

Meetings begin at 1:30 p.m. (the club’s guidelines advise members to be “prompt but not zealous”). First Tuesdays are Tea Days, though members occasionally sip sherry, in keeping with another long-held tradition. Every five years, they invite their spouses to toast the club’s anniversary at a special celebration; the sesquicentennial soiree is set for April 19, 2022, in the Malott Room of the Kansas Union. 

Georgann Hansen Eglinski, l’78, first joined in 1968, left for law school and her career, then returned 42 years later. “What drew me to the group in the beginning is what I found on return,” she says, “the company of intelligent women who share a lively curiosity about the world. 

“I feel connected to our founders and the many members who followed them, all of whom shared an enthusiasm for learning and an enjoyment of the company of like-minded women.” 

Laird, now 95, remains thankful to the noble Professor Leonard: “I’m certainly glad she founded Friends in Council.
It has been a major part of my life for a long, long time, and an important one. I’ve never regretted joining.”

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