Civic Housekeepers: Women’s Organizations, Civic Reform, and the 1940 Elections

Author: 
Park University, Former Kansas City Mayor

The first clubs must have been women's clubs. Surely sitting on those cold stones in the caves, some women must have said, 'Girls, we should do something about the mess in here,' and tying twigs together invented the first broom. 'My hair's a mess—I can't do a thing with it,' and the bone on the floor became the first comb. 'Why not put two skins together?'; and the first needle and designer dress were born. And so it has gone - whenever women came together, they formed a club - working together to improve their conditions.
—A humorous, yet apropos, introduction to an exploration of the role of Kansas City women and women's organizations in multiple civic reform movements, culminating in the successful 1940 anti-machine city elections. Peggy Masters, "History of the Woman’s City Club and Other Clubs, 1890-1929," unpublished manuscript.

A helpful framework for understanding the evolution of women and women's clubs in American civic affairs is provided by Nancy Hewitt in her book, Women’s Activism and Social Change. She identifies three separate ways by which women have historically expressed their activism:

  1. BENEVOLENT women sought to ameliorate conditions within the existing order.
  2. REFORMERS worked to cleanse individuals and institutions of evil.
  3. EQUALITY envisioned forming a democratic society based on sexual, racial, and social equality.

Through the Woman’s City Club, Women’s Forward Kansas City Committee, and other civic organizations, women in Kansas City embodied all these qualities in their campaign to oppose the Pendergast machine and eventually replace it in a “clean sweep.” Wielding brooms as potent props symbolizing the clean-up of corruption, and with the campaign slogan, "Ballots and Brooms vs. Bosses and Bullets," the women reformers joined the United Campaign Committee in 1939-1940 to champion an amended city charter and a slate of reform-minded candidates for public office.

Origins of Women’s Civic Activism in Kansas City

In the 1850s and '60s, as women's clubs began forming in Kansas City, they focused initially on benevolence, combined with a major emphasis on self-education. The dominant club leader and community activist at that time was Sarah Coates, who arrived in Kansas City in 1856.

Led by Sarah Coates, the Women’s Christian Association (WCA) was founded in December 1870. The intent of the organization was multi-faceted, including, as described by historian David Hanzlick, a "broad set of priorities ranging from benevolence to rescue and reform and equality." These priorities accurately mirrored the analysis offered by Hewitt in describing the historical patterns of female activism.

As the years passed, there were other women's organizations being formed. And, during the same time, the name Pendergast became known in Kansas City. James Pendergast, an Irish politician and hotel and bar owner, began to build a political family dynasty based on the provision of aid to the poor. His approach was popular because, in contrast to the benevolent associations, he required no investigations of the needy recipients before they could receive assistance.         

The next wave of influential women's clubs emerged in the 1890s, two particularly prominent ones being the Athenaeum and the Woman's City Club. Both continued a focus on benevolence, yet gradually expanded their activities to include civic reform efforts. Organized in 1894, the “Original Call of the Athenaeum" stated, “Has not the time come when it behooves us to stand shoulder to shoulder in the uplifting of the mental, moral and physical status of our city?" By its 15th year, the Kansas City Athenaeum was the second largest women's club in Missouri with 387 members. And by 1914, Athenaeum members had appeared before the city council and its committees, arguing against prostitution and gambling as well as lobbying against saloons in neighborhoods.

A year later, as described in the Kansas City Star, the Athenaeum's ". . . social and civic committees are apt to bob up anywhere and at the most disconcerting moments in municipal crises. Sometimes, staid officials have been driven to wonder ‘how these women knew . . .' Hardly a moment that does not come in some way under the eye of these women who are the most persistent of mothers and civic housekeepers."

As the Athenaeum continued to grow in membership and civic involvement, another organization was formed and rapidly grew in influence, the Kansas City Woman's City Club. Founded in 1916, the membership grew to over 400 members a year later. The Woman's City Club agenda developed rapidly, with concerns including a Health Committee, a Garbage Committee, and numerous pro-suffrage activities. In 1918, for example, the club, as described by Peggy Masters, "presented a course of lectures on ‘Principles of Government' for the ‘impartial enlightenment of City Club members' preparing them for the voting privileges yet to come.'"

By 1921, membership in the Woman's City Club had grown to 2,471.

During the 1920s and beyond, Club activities expanded to embrace multiple initiatives, including significant lobbying at City Hall. Projects included, according to Masters, "pasteurized milk, garbage covered and collected, a state boys' reformatory, children's playgrounds, juvenile court assistance, help for widows and orphans, assistance to public schools, separated prison facilities for women prisoners, mothers' milk stations, smoke abatement, inspection of county homes, real estate tax for teachers' salaries, promotion of a symphony orchestra, and strong hospital support."

Direct Political Activity

Although often ambivalent about direct "political activity," in the 1930's the leadership of the Woman's City Club gradually led its membership into more active civic engagement against the Pendergast machine. Now led by Tom Pendergast, the younger brother of James, the machine continued to exert enormous power in Kansas City with corruption at multiple levels, including control of the police department, widespread gambling and prostitution, and wide-open "entertainment" venues.

In 1932, a women's organization, the Government Study Club, was the audience for an unexpected assault on the Pendergast regime by Rabbi Samuel S. Mayerberg. The women heard Mayerberg exhort them, as quoted in William Reddig’s book, Tom’s Town, "You've turned your city over to a gang and given it into the hands of crooks and racketeers because you are asleep. . . . The time has come for action. The time for study is passed." In his autobiography, Mayerberg later commented, "The reception given that address amazed me. Those gentlewomen, leaders in the club life of the city, arose and shouted their approval."

A growing recognition of the corruption of the Pendergast machine forces became apparent as the 1930s progressed. As a result, reform efforts became more organized. Rabbi Mayerberg was instrumental in the development of the Charter League, followed by the Citizens Fusion ticket in 1934. An increasingly popular concept promoted in these reform efforts was "nonpartisan" government, designed to replace the heavily partisan and contentious politics being practiced in Kansas City.

At the same time that there were multiple organizational efforts to combat the rampant corruption in Kansas City's city and county governments, there were also individual reform efforts afoot. One of the most well-known reformers in the mid-1930s was Edith Dahlby, wife of Reverend Albert Dahlby, pastor at Broadway Baptist Church. Long an activist in previous communities and a licensed minister herself, Edith Dahlby became so enraged about the widespread corruption in the city that she began to speak out with passion about the need to "boycott all places of business that operated gambling devices."

Her outspoken message captured the attention of the Executive Committee of the Council of Churches and the Ministerial Alliance, and she subsequently led a delegation of women representing the PTA and women's clubs to lobby for reform at City Hall.

Although well-intentioned and courageous in her efforts, Dahlby began to experience fierce resistance to her message. She and her husband received threatening anonymous phone calls and even visits to their home by strangers threatening their lives and the lives of their children. The situation became so frightening that Dahlby backed off from her public statements, and fearing continuing danger, she and her family left town for a lengthy period of time.

Although both Rabbi Mayerberg and Edith Dahlby were unsuccessful in their individual efforts to substantially thwart the machine’s grip on the city, they did signify the gradual recognition on the part of Kansas City’s civic leadership that a concerted community-wide initiative would be necessary to end the Pendergast machine era. The challenge to do so was complex and intimidating.

Corruption in Focus

As described in a Holiday magazine feature, Kansas City had become "a rollicking haven of gangsters, gamblers, con men, striptease dancers, traveling salesmen, cattlemen, and conventioneers. Clip joints, fleshpots, and homicides flourished. In the burlesque shows even g-strings were superfluous. Votes were stolen by the handful and voting lists were padded with names taken from tombstones."

Although this reality was more than distasteful to most Kansas Citians, ambivalence still existed among many. A leading newspaper at the time editorialized that an "open city" brought tourism and thus increased financial viability for the community. As described by one civic observer who participated in the Reform Movement Oral History Project, "It was difficult for South Siders to understand the magnitude of the problem," as they lived in a part of the city not directly encountering daily corruption.

An apt description of the ambivalent attitude toward Pendergast and his machine was reflected in the words of Maurice Milligan, former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri, when he wrote, "I think it can be said without exaggeration that the people of Kansas City accepted Pendergast as the visible symbol of their pragmatic philosophy of live-and-let-live. They took a certain amount of pride in him.”

There was also continuing fear among many in the city: fear for their physical safety and also for their financial livelihoods. Samuel Mayerberg explained,

People were told what physicians they might use, what lawyers might practice, what merchants might do business. Personnel men would refuse to employ men unless they had passes from the Boss. All city insurance and all surety bonds for contractors working for the city or county had to be negotiated through one insurance broker . . . Respectable businessmen soon found it a matter of safety to have Pendergast or [Henry] McElroy [Tom's henchman and City Manager] identified with them in their concerns; in some instances they received blocks of stocks, in others they were paid for serving on executive boards. . . .

In spite of the seeming intransigence of the Pendergast machine, by 1938 there were rapidly developing internal and external stresses. Multiple reform forces worked to implode the Pendergast dynasty. Governor Lloyd C. Stark, working with Democrats statewide, began to mobilize to thwart Pendergast's efforts to control state government. A particularly important action by Stark was to appoint new members to the Kansas City Board of Elections, individuals who were not under the thumb of the machine.

In Jackson County, a judicial investigation of machine activities was underway. And fraud and tax evasion charges against Pendergast by the federal government were proceeding under the leadership of Maurice Milligan.

As a result, there was increasingly broad awareness of corruption at City Hall. A compelling example was the realization that the city had a deficit of over 1.5 million dollars in the general operating fund, which ultimately led to no salaries for city employees being paid in the last four months of 1939. (After the 1940 elections, it was learned that the city’s actual debt was $11 million.)

Heated encounters between Pendergast forces and individual citizens were on the increase. Reddig’s Tom’s Town depicts a particularly graphic example that occurred at City Hall: "The wife of a city fireman . . . called on Judge McElroy to protest his actions in cutting the wages and breaking up the union of the firemen. Armed with a leather whip, she was swinging lustily on the Judge when his attendants went to the rescue. They attempted to explain the woman’s actions by charging that she was intoxicated, and she admitted that she had had a nickel beer which was all she could afford on her husband’s salary of $67 a month.”

Machine Collapse & Aftermath

Finally, in rapid succession, Pendergast was indicted on April 7, 1939, McElroy resigned as city manager on April 13, and anti-machine reform efforts began to coalesce. A succession of reform organizations were formed, including the Charter Party. Its focus was a petition drive to force an election to recall the machine-controlled mayor and city council. Months of hard work by hundreds of volunteers resulted in over 100,000 names on the recall petition being submitted to the city clerk for validation to enable a special city election.

However, the remnants of the Pendergast machine still controlled City Hall, including the city clerk's office. Behind closed doors, the clerk and his staff quietly outlined a list of 20 questionable factors that could disqualify a signer of the petition. As a result of names being struck, only 42,102 remained: an inadequate number to warrant a recall election. Predictably, citizens were outraged, and this episode lent much credibility to the efforts of the reformers to galvanize the community.

The reform leaders went back to the drawing board, recognizing that initiative petitions were approved by the Board of Elections rather than the city clerk. As a result, a campaign was launched for a charter change that would reduce from four years to two years, the terms of office of the mayor and city council.

Occurring during the same general time when the reform efforts were gaining momentum, there was a related episode in which women played a prominent role. It energized women throughout the city as they observed the issue unfold. Three women active in the leadership of the Women's Forward Kansas City Committee, a fledgling reform group, were selected by the presiding judge of the Jackson County Court to serve as an advisory committee to examine the county's institutions. Again, because of the influence of the Pendergast machine in county government, there had been growing evidence of corruption. The presiding judge, George S. Montgomery, was not affiliated with the machine, but the other two county judges (Fred. W. Klaber and F.L. Byam, Jr.) were.

The three women named to the advisory committee were Mrs. Charles N. Seidlitz, Jr., Mrs. William E. Kemp, and Mrs. J. Howard Stephenson. The Kansas City Journal reported that they were specifically assigned by Judge Montgomery to ". . . make recommendations on the pay roll of the county institutions and report on the personnel, efficiency, and general quality of public service of the county welfare units."

For six months, the three women spent countless volunteer hours assessing county departments to uncover evidence of poor management and inadequate services being provided in county facilities. Then, abruptly, the two machine-affiliated judges of the county court "discharged" the women's advisory committee.

As reported in the Kansas City Star, at the end of a regular meeting of the judges, Judge Klaber stated, "I move that, since the ladies advisory committee has gone beyond any thought we had about its duties," he started, then backed up to his motion again, "I move that in the future we dispense with the ladies advisory committee.” “I vote yes,” Byam said quickly.

"I vote no,” Montgomery shouted, "These women don't get a nickel out of their work. Their interest is solely in the welfare of the many unfortunates in our county institutions. They are well informed on the standards that should be maintained. They have no personal motives, no political friends."

The heated exchange among the judges continued with Klaber asserting, "We are very glad for their advice but we should refuse to let them dictate who shall be discharged and who shall be appointed. They have gone beyond proper bounds in their dictation."

This well-publicized episode served as an example to Kansas City women of the typical mindset of the machine politicians, even county judges. The reaction in women's organizations was illustrated by the action of the Kansas City Athenaeum, as their 500 members endorsed a resolution chastising the two judges for disbanding the women's advisory group. The convergence of this rejection of the women by the county court with the rapidly developing involvement of women in the city reform groups further energized women to become civic activists.

In dizzying progression, more reform organizations were created, including the anti-machine Democratic Citizens' Association, the United Democrats Committee, and the United Citizens Committee. One of the most visible and progressive groups formed was Forward Kansas City. Made up of many prominent business leaders, it was the first time this segment of the community had become visible in anti-machine activities. An executive committee of Forward Kansas City was quickly formed, with three women among those appointed to serve. The women were Mrs. Charles N. Seidlitz, Mrs. Edmund Field, and Mrs. Charles S. Petrat.

Because of the continuing outrage over the rejection of the recall petitions at City Hall, and with the leadership of Forward Kansas City, the initiative petition drive gained momentum. It was recognized that if the drive was successful and the subsequent charter change resulted in reducing from 4 years to 2, the terms for mayor and city council, a second election would be required.

The subsequent strategy was three-fold: get enough signatures on the charter change petitions, be successful in an election to get the term reduction, and shortly thereafter, elect a reform-minded mayor and city council. The first election date was projected to be February 13, 1940, and, if successful, the second election would be held, seven weeks later, on April 2.

During the fall of 1939, as momentum built among the various reform-oriented groups, it became abundantly clear that a single organization needed to lead the campaign efforts, hence the creation of the United Campaign Committee. The initial members were the Charter Party, Forward Kansas City Committee, Good Government League, Republican Party, Democratic Citizens Association, Kansas City Democratic Club, and Citizens League.

Shortly thereafter, the Woman’s City Club and the League of Women Voters formally joined the effort.

Regarding the Women’s City Club, its progression from the avoidance of "political" involvement to active participation in the city reform movement is suggestive of the reaction of other women’s organizations over time. In 1932, a question had been presented to the executive board of the Woman's City Club: "Should the Club open its Dining Room for a dinner to be given for the Anti-Prohibition Organization?” The answer was “no,” "on the grounds that it might be introducing a controversial question into the Club."

In 1936, another controversial issue came before the executive committee, and the president "pointed out the danger of becoming involved in a political situation which is contrary to the rules of the Club."

However, by the late 1930s, attitudes were changing. On February 25, 1938, a meeting of the Woman's City Club executive committee focused on that year's city election campaign. A letter to all the members was agreed upon, urging them to register and vote, "in the interests of good government."

By 1939, the executive committee agreed on a written response to the Forward Kansas City Committee. This response included the following: we "enthusiastically endorse the Women's Charter Committee and through our active participation in the work of this Committee we consider ourselves a definite part of the Forward Kansas City Movement."

This action led soon after to the Woman's City Club joining other organizations as active members of the United Campaign Committee.

Typical of the mindset of increasing numbers of Kansas City women were the comments of Susie Robinson, a volunteer with the emerging United Campaign Committee. The Star quoted, "We women have been ashamed of our city too long. We've apologized for it to our young people too much. The time is here for a thorough house cleaning at City Hall. Women who use their home and tea and bridge parties as an excuse to shirk their civic responsibilities are placing an added burden on the rest of us who do want a fine city in which to live." However, an interesting example of "lines in the sand" between even progressive men and women in the late 1930s is evidenced in the bylaws of the Charter Party, one of the more visible reform organizations. In describing the officers and their functions, the following requirements are included:

  1. A chairman of the Central Committee, who shall be a man.
  2. A vice-chairman of the Central Committee, who shall be a woman.
  3. A secretary of the Central Committee, who shall be a woman.
  4. A treasurer of the Central Committee, who shall be a man.

Regardless of the gender boundaries that existed at the time, there was early recognition that women needed to be actively involved in the anticipated 1940 campaigns. In short order, a Women's Division of the United Campaign Committee was created.

Campaign for the 1940 Elections

On November 22, 1939, under the campaign slogan of "Ballots and Brooms vs. Bosses and Bullets," the initial meeting of the Women's Division was held. Representatives of organizations made up of over 10,000 women were in attendance. The organizations included the Democratic Citizens Association, Citizens League, Good Government Association, League of Women Voters, Kansas City Democrats, Charter Party, Women's Forward Kansas City Committee, Republican Party, and the Woman's City Club.

A highlight of the meeting was the recognition of the Woman's City Club as making its “first endorsement of a political campaign in the 22-year-old club's history." The club's rationale was explained by Mrs. J. Howard Stephenson, the club's president . . . “an organization of the scope of the Woman's City Club must necessarily contain people of every political sentiment, but we believe that this is no longer a political situation, but a question of good government and civic right-mindedness."

Additional topics of discussion at the meeting included the announcement of a poster and cartoon contest to illustrate the political situation in Kansas City. Also discussed were plans to schedule large numbers of informational meetings throughout the city regarding the need for reform. The sponsoring organization, the League of Women Voters, would provide the training for the women serving on the speaking panels at those informational meetings.

Perhaps the most important decision announced that day was the selection of Claude Gorton as chairman of the Women's Division. She would prove to be the linchpin for the entire campaign effort.

From the beginning of the women's campaign activities, there was a recognition that one of the challenges was to assure other women that it was safe to vote for reform . . . in that the voting process would be legal and confidential. As Mrs. Conger Smith, an active Republican in the campaign, stated, “Confidence must be built up in the thoughts of women—confidence that their ballots are secret and that they will be counted. If we lose ten votes in each precinct through fear, we have lost 4,000 votes. Education that overcomes fear will hold those 4,000 votes."

One of the first major efforts led by the Women's Division was registering voters throughout the city for the initiative petition drive. Going door to door, hundreds of women contacted individuals to be sure they were registered and also prepared to vote on the two projected election days, February 13 and April 2.

After unregistered voters were identified, other women would drive them to the Board of Elections offices to officially register. Over 200 cars were used in that effort. A third group of women were telephoning citizens around the city to identify individuals and then make arrangements for the registration process. An agreement was reached with the Kansas City Star to print a form in their newspapers that citizens could fill out and mail to the Election Board, identifying their new addresses. After receipt and processing, the women volunteers would prepare and mail postcards acknowledging that those citizens were now eligible to vote.

In later reflecting on her active role in the women's campaign efforts, Marjorie Gage, wife of future Mayor John B. Gage, described a frantic pace. She was in charge of the “postal card effort including the registration notification and subsequent reminders to vote." According to Gage, 109,000 postcards were sent during the campaign. She described a “massive” addressing effort with hundreds of women involved in this single aspect of the campaign.

Also sponsored by the Women's Division, a weekly slogan contest was underway. Over 300 women typically voted in the selection process, and $5 was the prize. One winning slogan was offered by Miss Alma Bates:

The old machine is out of fix,
We now are wise to all their tricks.
Our women brave, with eyes so keen,
Will help keep Kansas City clean!

A more succinct entry in the contest was offered by C.H. Huffman:

Kansas City's dirty dishes are in the sink
While most of the bosses are in the clink.

Chosen as the overall symbol of the 1940 reform efforts was the broom. Lapel pins were designed consisting of a miniature broom with a blue handle and red ribbons. William Munger, husband of one of the women active in the reform effort, made the broom pins in his basement, and they were sold for one dollar each to raise funds for the United Campaign and the subsequent development of the Citizens Association.

There was even a theme song for the reform campaigns. Entitled “God Bless Our Town,” it had new lyrics for an old favorite, "God Bless America," and was sung at many campaign events.

In January, it became apparent that the efforts of the United Campaign and its most active participants, the Women's Division, were succeeding. The end result of all the telephoning, canvassing, post cards, and public speeches resulted in over 100,000 citizens signing the initiative petitions, the Board of Election Commissioners certifying the petitions, and the election day formally set for February 13.

To highlight the election's importance, there was a statement printed at the bottom of all United Campaign letters sent out in January regarding the February election: “All forces in Kansas City opposing the corrupt Pendergast machine are joined together as the United Campaign Committee in a movement to amend the Charter of Kansas City to reduce the terms of office of all city officials to two years."

On the February 13 election day, a huge volunteer effort was evident. Thousands of women were active in getting citizens to the polls. Five hundred had been assigned to be on the phones all day encouraging voter turnout, while 500 more were in their cars driving voters to and from the polls. Also, at every precinct across the city, women were assigned to provide all-day oversight and support. There was an additional group of over 100 women preparing meals for the election judges in each precinct.

In total, over 7,500 women were involved as volunteers on that election day. And it was reported, "at the polls the women workers for the United Campaign outnumbered the men workers three to one."

That day, a 5-1 majority vote in favor of the charter change set the stage for the April 2 city election of the mayor and city council. It had been a massive victory for the anti-machine faction.

And did the women celebrate! The day following the election, over 1,500 women gathered at the United Campaign headquarters. Women's Division chairman, Claude Gorton, led the gala by announcing that tea would not be served . . . instead, "It's going to be punch, fruit punch with a brass band!"

A cakewalk ensued with the band playing, "Happy Days Are Here Again," followed by "Roll Out the Barrel" with singing, hugs, and more and more flowers arriving on the scene all day long. One joyful male supporter told Gorton, "I've just been to City Hall. They've got the flag and the pigeons all at half-mast."

Gorton asserted, "The women have been marvelous. All day long they have marched to the polls, just as we knew they would. They have worked shoulder to shoulder with the men. I toured every ward in the city today, and I saw what the women did."

One of the winners in the slogan contest had been selected by the Women's Division as the motto for the entire reform campaign, A NEW HEART FOR THE HEART OF AMERICA.

It was proudly displayed on a large red heart at the campaign headquarters, and when victory in the February election was assured, the heart, over six feet across, was moved to the front window for all to see.

The April Election

Following the February 13 victory, the reform campaign transitioned rapidly into implementation of a game plan for the April 2 election for mayor and city council. Again, under the leadership of Claude Gorton, women mobilized into telephone, transportation, and other committees to support the reform ticket, even as the ticket was being assembled.

Reform mayoral candidate, John B. Gage, was supported by the same broad base of individuals and organizations who had been victorious in February. In the opening speech of his campaign, Gage asserted,

The women of Kansas City played an important role in the Charter Amendment election of February 13. They will contribute still greater strength to our election April 2. The women of Kansas City are smart enough to look behind the current of the present picture. They have the courage to act upon their own convictions.

Recognition of the women's commitment to the reform efforts spread throughout the city. On the April election day, as men seasoned in election day activities reported, "The men were 'doing nothing' in the eleventh precinct of the seventh ward. The women were 'getting out darn near the whole vote, and it's a good big vote, too. . . ." He then described that "he had seventeen women [just in his precinct] driving cars, telephoning and passing out cards to procrastinators."

Another male poll worker noted, "there were twelve women doing their bit, and they've been up since dawn telephoning and driving—and they don't even stop to eat. I've watched them and I don't know of one of them that's taken off for lunch."

And in the eighth ward, a male observer commented, ". . . the biggest part of the vote we've got so far has been cast by women. The women aren't only working, they're voting. Women that never voted before in their lives have come in here today and voted."

Election day on April 2, 1940, produced a record turnout and an overwhelming victory for the anti-machine reformers. Their candidate, John Gage, was elected mayor, and all but one of the reformer's slate of city council candidates were elected. Again, the celebrations began. . . .

Aftermath

Acclaim was generous for women in the 1940 campaigns. Rabbi Mayerberg later wrote, "The women of the city joined us heroically and performed prodigious tasks. Gentle women walked from door to door receiving signatures of those who would join what we now called the Clean-Up Campaign. A broom was our symbol. . . ."

Similar praise came from Maurice Milligan: "The women of Kansas City made a determined drive, adopting as their emblem of battle, 'The housewife's broom.’ They rang doorbells, polled precincts, and spread the gospel of good government in every political ward of the city."

Governor Stark personally congratulated the women in a telegram to Claude Gorton. "All Missouri is proud of the part the women of Kansas City played in cleaning up the wreckage left by years of Pendergast misrule. No one ever again can question the powerful influence of women voters for honest, efficient government. I am confident that the brooms which made Kansas City a clean community in yesterday's election will keep it clean in the years to come."

By 1946, the momentum for reform had continued with the women demonstrating their ongoing civic engagement. Perhaps Tom’s Town best captures the moment:

The ladies with their brooms, their leaders and admirers generated so much enthusiasm that six years later, their movement was still going strong, at the end of which time they had triumphed over the Democratic opposition in three more elections.

When the campaign was over, Claude Gorton reflected back on the decisive role of women in achieving victory in both elections:

Thoroughly aroused at the broken machine promises and definitely determined to clean house, the women voters of Kansas City showed their real fighting spirit. Our broom was no idle symbol as machine workers said. It never is. We women were determined more than ever that we would clean house. We decided that something must be done. We did not break faith with those who blazed the trail in founding our great city. The true spirit of the pioneer mother predominated.

Conclusion

In reflecting back on the aftermath of the 1940 election, it is perhaps surprising that the more visible role of women under the new charter diminished. It would be over 20 years before a woman was elected to the city council and almost 60 years until a woman would become Kansas City’s mayor.

With Claude Gorton declining the invitation in 1940 to be a city council candidate, the primary means of female involvement in city-related activities then came through the city’s Department of Welfare. Over time, 14 community councils were formed with full-time “field workers” assigned to coordinate the council activities. Most of those workers were women who shepherded the activities of each neighborhood group.

By 1950, Claude Gorton was serving as chair of the Public Recreation Advisory Board, on which five of 11 members were women. Women were also active as members of the Auditorium Advisory Board, the Board of Trustees of City Trusts, and as members of the Municipal Art Commission. “Being the first is always difficult,” said Billie Hagan, who, in 1963, became the first woman under the 1940 charter to be elected to the city council. Having initially run four years earlier, she served for seven years. Upon her reelection, she commented, “they realized I wasn’t going away.”

Fast forward to 1975 when, having served two terms on the city council, Sarah Snow became the first woman in Kansas City history to run for mayor. With Charles Wheeler as her opponent, Snow captured 42 percent of the vote. Reflecting on her campaign, she said, “I was telling the truth, and it wasn’t pretty.”

Snow’s words, spoken in 1975, reflect the role of truth-telling by women in the 1940 election and through the years that followed. In retrospect, “telling the truth” may be one of the most significant contributions made by women in Kansas City politics.

Acknowledgement: 
KANSAS CITY PUBLIC LIBRARY | DIGITAL HISTORY
Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict,1855-1865.
The Pendergast Years, Kansas City in the Jazz Age & Great Depression.
KC History, Missouri Valley Special Collections at the Kansas City Public Library.