In the years following the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which extended women the right to vote nationwide, women in Kansas City undertook efforts to reform municipal government, serve in elected office, break through traditional barriers to employment in various professions, or lead social and civic clubs in improving the health and welfare of disadvantaged populations. Their efforts often influenced key moments in the city’s history, such as the 1925 city charter that unintentionally helped Tom Pendergast consolidate power and the “clean sweep” reforms that followed in the wake of Pendergast’s indictment in 1939.
The history of the Donnelly Garment Company and its battle with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) is one that defies conventional understandings of American life in the Great Depression. It is a story of a female entrepreneur succeeding in an era of economic paralysis, and one of a union failing to organize a factory in a period when workers won substantive rights. ILGWU president David Dubinsky, Nell Donnelly Reed, and Senator James A. Reed were the principal figures in a contest to organize a single garment factory, a legal battle that came to represent much larger questions.