Morally and Legally Entitled: Women’s Political Activism in the Interwar Period in Kansas City
“Maisie [sic] Jones Ragan. Who wants to vote for a colored woman on the council?” proclaimed the handbill distributed by the Pendergast machine on the morning of the municipal elections of Tuesday, November 3, 1925. The elections took place under the new Kansas City charter approved in February of that year. The new charter replaced a two-chamber city governance structure of 32 elected representatives with a single council of nine people. Ragan, in fact, was not African American, but rather a white woman with a long history of activism in the community. Although her candidacy in 1925 was unsuccessful, it reflected the aspiration of middle and upper class women to gain electoral victory and participate in the governance of their city, which was susceptible to appeals to racial prejudice.
These Kansas City women–members of the Athenaeum, the Woman’s City Club, and other organizations–sought to assert power in their community and beyond. Coming from Republican and independent Democratic backgrounds, and abhorring the influence of the Democratic machine, they embraced a progressive spirit that revered what they envisioned as good government. At the local level, women’s campaigns for city offices and the school board in the interwar period united progressive Republican and anti-machine, independent Democratic women. In a similar way, African American women’s groups often acted in unison with the white clubs even as women affiliated with the political machines participated in and sometimes directed electoral fraud. This mélange of class, race, and ethnicity in women’s activism adds nuance to the scholarly view that after gaining the vote in 1920, women struggled for cohesiveness and the political power that accompanied it. Their experience reflected the difficulties that remained for women’s political participation. With the defeat of Masie Jones Ragan for city council in 1925, the activism of these women changed, but it did not diminish.
Activism Among Women’s Clubs
The women’s club movement provided an organizational structure for women’s activism. Women in Kansas City participated in large numbers in an era when thousands of women across the country belonged to clubs affiliated with the national General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC). While historians often view the national women’s club movement as focused on “education, self-improvement, and sociability,” women’s clubs in Kansas City acted vigorously on a wide range of local, state, and national issues. While overwhelmingly middle and upper class, white and Protestant, the Athenaeum and Woman’s City Club counted among their members both Republicans and independent Democrats. They had Jewish members and collaborated with the National Council of Jewish Women on the use of silver nitrate to prevent blindness in newborns in Kansas City. African American club women locally and nationally interacted with white women’s organizations through the GFWC, which admitted African American clubs, and through the African American Young Women’s Christian Association, which operated as a branch of the white central organization.
Founded in 1896, the large and well established Athenaeum enjoyed the support of 2,200 members throughout this period. The club had long advocated an array of public issues, including, among others, the creation of public playgrounds, public kindergartens, the juvenile court, parent-teacher associations, the placement of a matron at the city jail to oversee female inmates who had previously been overseen by male jail attendants, advocacy for pure milk regulations, prohibition, and the suppression of vice, among many other causes. At the national level, the club clashed vigorously with Democratic Senator James A. Reed, from Kansas City, Missouri, over renewal of the Sheppard-Towner Infancy and Maternity Protection Act of 1921, a pioneering piece of social legislation that provided prenatal and postpartum care to mothers and infants. Reed opposed the act as an invasion by government into private life.
The Woman’s City Club, another large and politically active women’s club in the community, was founded in 1917. The club’s resolve to improve social conditions in the community led it to fund a study by an outside investigator into the conditions in the county’s juvenile justice system in 1925. The club embraced recommendations for juvenile justice reform and endorsed county aid to widows who were “morally and legally entitled” to assistance. The Club also sponsored a speech by suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt, who argued that U.S. policy undercut peace efforts.
The African American women’s clubs participated in public debate at varying levels of intensity and interacted with their white counterparts. In addition to the GFWC and the YWCA, African American women belonged to the Kansas City Association of Colored Women, the National Junior League, social sororities, and masonic auxiliaries, among others. Even the Pleasure Seekers Art & Study Club–hardly a name that indicates an activist agenda– engaged in politics by hosting a lecture by firebrand reformer Ida B. Wells in 1925. African American women’s clubs had deep roots in Kansas City by this time. Prominent Kansas City educator, Josephine Silone Yates, led the National Association of Colored Women as president in 1901. Because of their common membership in the GFWC, the Athenaeum president addressed a meeting of the African American federated women’s clubs in 1919.
Masie Jones Ragan and the Council Race of 1925
Masie Jones Ragan became a flashpoint in efforts by the Athenaeum and other progressive women to elect a woman to the city council in 1925. Ragan embodied both the political and professional aspirations of her sex despite her status as a divorced woman. She was a grandmother when she graduated from law school in 1921. Ragan served on the committee that wrote the 1925 city charter and was elected to the upper house of the city council in 1924.
Yet, Ragan’s political races were not the first forays by women into local elective politics. Following the adoption of women’s suffrage in 1920, both political parties knew that women would be essential to their electoral success and nominated them for office in 1922. The Republicans nominated two women for offices during that election cycle – Mrs. Bessie M. Elliott for city treasurer and Mrs. Carolyn Fuller, a past president of the Athenaeum, for the school board. Not to be outdone, the Democrats nominated three women for office – two for upper house and one for lower house alderman.
The Democrats faced far greater complexity in their nomination process than the Republicans did, as they had to broker agreement on a list of candidates among three factions: the “Goats” led by Tom Pendergast, the “Rabbits” led by Joe Shannon, and the independent Democrats who did not affiliate with either machine. Emma Longan, an independent Democrat and founder of an eponymous women’s club, received the nomination for a seat in the upper house of alderman.The party nominated two additional women: Margaret Dougherty Shepard, for the city council and Lucile Tappan Moreland for the lower house.
In the municipal elections of 1922, the Kansas City Journal declared that women had “voted intelligently without asking questions,” a fact that clearly surprised the paper. In addition to voting, women worked at the polls, and Longan and Shepard were the first women elected to the upper house of aldermen. Fuller was the first woman elected to the school board.
The municipal elections of 1924 provided the opportunity for a Republican sweep. In addition to Masie Jones Ragan, the Republicans nominated another woman, Rose Ludlow, for a seat in the upper house of aldermen and nominated an African American clergyman, Reverend J.W. Hurse, for the city council as well. The Democrats nominated one woman for the upper house. To achieve victory in the April elections, Republican women organized cars to take women to the polls and a telephone campaign to ensure that every Republican woman voted. Republicans won all of the races with the exception of the city treasurer’s position. The two Republican women, candidates, Ragan and Ludlow, were each elected to the upper chamber.
The New City Charter
Even with the Republican victories in 1924, pressure mounted from the business community, good government advocates, and women’s clubs, among others, for a simplified city council/manager governance structure to replace the two-chamber alderman system. They proposed a new city charter in 1925 that envisioned moving from the two-chamber structure to a council-manager format. The goals were to remove politics from city government and focus on efficiency and professionalism.
The new city charter went before the voters on February 24, 1925, with the full support of the women’s clubs. The Call, Kansas City’s African American newspaper, dismissed opposition to the new charter as ill-founded. While the Pendergast and Shannon machines had defeated each previous attempt at charter revisions, Pendergast realized that structures mattered little if he controlled the majority of the council seats. Thus he did not oppose the new charter, which easily won. The elections under the new city charter were set for November 3, 1925, when the voters were to elect a mayor, nine council members, two municipal judges, and vote on the issuance of city bonds for a variety of city improvement projects. The Call strongly supported the Beach ticket, with the exception of the reelection of one judge, and endorsed the bonds, which white and black women’s clubs actively supported.
The desire of the progressive women to claim a seat on the new council clashed directly with the progressives’ desire to win a majority. Masie Jones Ragan secured the Republican nomination for an at-large council position with support from the Athenaeum. On election day, the bonds passed, but Ragan lost. Whether her gender, her divorced marital status, or the false assertion that she was African American caused her defeat is impossible to discern. Marjorie Beach, the wife of Mayor Beach, blamed the handbills. As a result of the elections, Republican Mayor Beach faced a majority of Democratic machine politicians on the council.
The progressives’ loss was the machine’s gain. Pendergast won political control of city government and held it for the next 13 years. Ragan’s loss squelched enthusiasm for women candidates for city offices, and the machine Democrats no longer needed female candidates to compete with Republicans and independent Democrats. No woman served again on the city council until the 1950s.
Women on the Kansas City School Board
Women’s quest for power in the community succeeded, however, in the arena of education. This success was due, at least in part, to society’s view that children’s issues were an appropriate female domain. In the political mix of Republicans, independent Democrats, and the Shannon and Pendergast machines, the machines left the school district largely untouched. At school board elections, each party nominated a candidate–always white–for one of the two available seats. The candidates did not face opposition. In April 1924, for example, voters elected both Republican Edwin C. Meservey and Democrat J.C. Nichols; each was unopposed.
This largely “hands-off” approach by the machines seemingly flew in the face of both logic (the school district controlled hundreds of jobs which were the stock-in-trade of political machines) and historical precedent in other machine-controlled cities. The reasons for the unusual arrangement are at least two-fold. First, the members of the school board were prominent figures within the Kansas City business establishment and, thus, insulated the district from machine encroachment. Second, the Pendergast machine did not establish firm control over city politics until well after the tradition of uncontested school board races was firmly established. This nomination-cum-election process made the path to a board seat easier for women to achieve. Once nominated by their party, they ran unopposed.
In this period, women routinely won election and re-election to the school board. Between 1926 and 1945, at least two and sometimes three of the seven board members were women. Yet societal views of appropriate gender roles limited their ability to claim the highest level of power and authority, and none advanced beyond vice president to lead the board as its president
Women’s Involvement in Democratic Machine Politics
Women also served in the far less seemly role of operatives in the election fraud perpetrated by the Pendergast machine, with some women holding positions of authority and directing fraudulent activities. Machine-inspired violence during the elections of 1934 resulted in four deaths and no indictments. No less corruption accompanied the elections of 1936; ghost voting, ballot box stuffing, and unsubstantiated vote tallies were all common. Unlike the election of 1934, however, the election fraud of 1936 resulted in the prosecution of 278 mostly working class women and men who had served as precinct judges, clerks, and captains. Many of the women participated in the fraud because they were married to public employees. These women feared their spouses would lose their jobs if they refused to participate. Alice M. Froeschl, for instance, worked as a cashier at the Jones Store, and her husband was a firefighter.
While the press portrayed most women defendants as meek, Frances Ryan proved an exception. Ryan had established herself as community leader as early as the mid-1920s, when her name appeared with those of other prominent people in an advertisement supporting the Democratic ticket in the elections of 1925. At the time of the 1936 elections, she served as superintendent of the Jackson County juvenile detention center and 12th ward boss. Federal Prosecutor Maurice Mulligan described Ryan as the mastermind of the voter fraud in the ward. For their crimes, women generally received one year of probation. Men commonly received far more severe sentences – up to five years in the federal prison. Frances Ryan, however, received two three-year prison terms.
Women’s Activism after the fall of Pendergast
The Pendergast machine suffered a lethal blow with the indictment of Boss Tom and former state insurance superintendent Emmet O’Malley on April 7, 1939, on federal income tax evasion charges. The business community, given the opportunity to envision a future for the city without Pendergast, quickly coalesced to form the Forward Kansas City Committee to reform city government. Progressive Republican and independent Democrat women added their support, organizational skills, and time to the business community’s enthusiasm. While the usual narrative of the cleanup campaign emphasizes middle and upper class women uniting to bring honesty to government, a more nuanced telling must include the fact that other women lost power. The women who lost were likely to have Irish surnames, come from working class backgrounds, and practice the Catholic faith.
Claude Gorton, a resident of the prosperous South Side, independent Democrat, and long-time community leader, directed female participation in the municipal reform initiative through the Women’s Forward Kansas City Committee. The women’s committee reflected widespread enthusiasm and unity, but also signaled that women had a place and role different from that of the community’s male leadership. By early 1940, the various entities operated collaboratively as the United Campaign to amend the city charter at the February election. The proposed charter reduced the terms of sitting council members from four to two years, established two year terms for future city council members, the mayor, and two municipal judges, and required that elections be held for a new council in early April of that year.
Just as white women acted separately within the larger Forward Kansas City campaign, so too did African Americans—both men and women—coalesce in support of municipal reform. While women’s organizations such as the YWCA had remained active on such issues as anti-lynching, housing, and jobs legislation, women’s political activity in municipal reform reflected a partnership with men. Together, they formed the “Citizens Movement” within the larger municipal reform initiative and adopted a 10-point platform that called for fairness in public employment, housing, education and training, juvenile and adult corrections, and representation on the school board, among other grievances. By August 1939, the Citizens Movement claimed 1,000 members. Women served on the executive committee of the Citizens Movement as well as in committee roles.
For the charter election on February 13, 1940, Claude Gorton and the Women’s Forward Kansas City Committee fielded 1,500 women who were assigned to polls, 500 women who worked the telephones, another 500 women who provided transportation for voters, and many others who prepared lunches for the election judges and clerks. They faced little opposition when the machine forces announced their support of the charter amendments, which prevailed by a margin of six votes to one.
The United Campaign and the women’s committee intensified their efforts in preparation for the municipal elections on April 2, 1940, and supported independent Democrat John B. Gage for mayor. Prominent African American funeral home director and community leader T.B. Watkins served as chairman of the “negro” division of the campaign. The NAACP appointed a committee of men and women to call on Gage and the Democratic mayoral candidate, Flavel Robertson, to “ask them to state their policy toward Negroes.” Each candidate also appeared separately before what was then called the Negro Chamber of Commerce.
Under Gorton’s leadership, the women’s campaign grew to 7,500 active volunteers. On election day, they served as telephone coordinators, drivers, babysitters, and poll observers. A newspaper described the women as being “as serious as any man could be.” The success of the United Campaign resulted in a comfortable win for Gage and considerable plaudits for the women’s efforts.
The victory of the anti-machine forces underlines the diversity of thought and expression among women in Kansas City during this period. The reformers met with electoral success in city and school board elections in 1922, found sustained electoral success only in school board elections, and advocated effectively on behalf of municipal reform in both 1925 and 1940. African American women often joined in common cause, whether through their club ties or working in concert with black men. Working class, ethnic, Catholic women fared less well. Yet the irony persists: by asserting their right to participate in city affairs, progressive women’s insistence on a female city council candidate in 1925 instead led to the consolidation of the machine’s power. The reforms of 1940, by contrast, proved lasting.
A longer, footnoted version of this article will appear in a book, Wide Open Town: Kansas City Between the Wars (under contract with the University Press of Kansas, anticipated fall 2018).