Claude Gorton

Author: 
Park University, Former Kansas City Mayor
  • Date of Birth: 1888
  • Place of Birth: Marion, Alabama
  • Claim to Fame: Reformer, Chairman of the Women's Division of the United Campaign Committee,
  • Spouse: George H. Gorton
  • Date of Death: July 5, 1975
  • Final Resting Place: Riverview Cemetery, Louisiana, Missouri

Of the thousands of women volunteers who devoted time, energy, and resources to the reform campaigns of 1940, one woman was acknowledged by all as their singular leader: Claude Gorton. As the designated chairman of the Women's Division of the United Campaign Committee, she exhibited exemplary leadership throughout the reform efforts of the late 1930s. Indeed, Gorton is perhaps best known for her leadership role in the 1940 municipal elections, which resulted in a “clean sweep” and replaced the remnants of the Pendergast machine with a reformed city charter and new candidates.

Born in Alabama, Claude moved to Kansas City, married George Gorton, and in 1930, was widowed. For decades she was actively involved in community volunteer organizations and was also a businesswoman. She served on the boards of the USO, Traveler's Aid Society, YWCA, and many others, while at the same time, serving as the vice-president of the W.B. Young Supply Company.

Prior to the 1940 reform campaigns, Gorton was involved in the National Youth Movement and served as chair of the Independent Coalition of American Women for Missouri, in support of Alf Landon's bid for US president in 1932.

Modest about her accomplishments during the reform campaigns of the 1930s, Claude Gorton exhibited a stamina and leadership acuity that won her accolades both before and after the elections. As described by Marjorie Gage (wife of Mayor John Gage), Gorton was "quite dynamic" and "only wanted good government in Kansas City.” Another woman active in the reform efforts commented, ". . . most of us women just can't keep up with her. But we've learned to trust her final suggestions as a sort of nugget of the best of a lot of points of view."

In addition to her organizational skills, she traversed the city from one end to the other during the 1940 campaigns, taking every opportunity to speak to women's clubs, neighborhood groups, and civic organizations. As observed by many, she seemed to relate to all groups of citizens, no matter how diverse. Recollections include her campaigning, "down in the Italian neighborhoods and the Negro districts and over in the West Side community meetings."

In every situation, Gorton impressed her audience with her warmth and intelligence. For example, when speaking to black audiences, she would reference her earlier years in Alabama. Her comments once included, "Your race taught me to speak. My old mammy was one of the nearest persons to me in my earliest childhood. I have met and talked recently with your great chemist, Dr. George Washington Carver, when I visited your great Tuskegee Institute."

Claude Gorton was also not afraid to confront anyone in an audience who challenged her in a personal way. One instance occurred when a machine politician interrupted her speech. She recognized him and recalled that he had referred to the women involved in the reform movement as "pink-nailed, cocktail-drinking, cigarette-smoking South Siders." She took this opportunity to chastise him for his comments and to assure him that she was a true "Alabama Democrat.”

At another campaign appearance, Gorton "began to pull off her elegant elbow length gloves,” then commented, “‘I want to get these gloves off first,' she explained with her slow and gentle smile. The men say you can hit a lot harder with hard fists.'"

As the charter change campaign progressed, the words of Claude Gorton in her speaking appearances reflected the message being articulated by women speakers across the city. In her appeal on WDAF radio, she said,

In the Women's Division of the United Campaign Committee are the names of 40,000 women who have signed to amend the charter because they know the record of the present city administration was bad; that homes and family welfare was affected; that the only way to correct conditions was to change from those who have broken faith to those who have honorable records and clean hands.

On the February election day, it was reported that Claude Gorton arrived at campaign headquarters when the sun rose. She voted early that day and spent the following hours visiting every ward in the city to check on the work of the women at the polls.

The highly successful leadership of Claude Gorton in the February 13 election was so evident throughout the city that she was approached by John Gage to join his ticket as a city council candidate in the upcoming April election. He was insistent that she run. In addition, the executive committee of the Women's Division passed a resolution encouraging her candidacy.

To both entreaties, she declined. As she stated, "The women played an important part in the February 13 election. More than half the votes cast for the clean-up forces were from the women. I appreciated the resolution adopted by the Women's Division indorsing me as a candidate and Mr. Gage's request too. However, I felt that this was an emergency and that a woman in the council would not be as effective as a businessman. We have a very strong ticket now and the Women's Division will be back of it 100 percent"

Following the campaign, Gorton remarked on women’s roles in the election victories:

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.

Claude Gorton left Kansas City in 1954 to live closer to her daughter in Louisiana, Missouri, and she died on July 5, 1975.

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.