Articles

Women's Rights & Activism

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In a 1933 interview with journalist Jerome Beatty, Tom Pendergast cast himself as a protector of community values, boldly claiming that his political organization’s work had long been focused on stamping out any instance of vice or immorality in Kansas City: “We won’t have anything to do with helping drug peddlers or prostitutes. We put the whole strength of the organization to work to slug those people. And to slug them hard.”

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American women’s growing participation in public and political life during the 1920s was the cause of much national tension and debate. While many Americans felt that a woman’s proper place ought to be confined to the home, increasing numbers of women demanded influence outside that narrow sphere. After gaining the right to vote in 1920, women in Kansas City made their influence felt through their work in women’s clubs like the Athenaeum. This early training in civic reform efforts would ultimately position Kansas City women as one of the more powerful forces for change during the reform elections of 1940.

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Through the Woman’s City Club, Women’s Forward Kansas City Committee, and other civic organizations, women in Kansas City exemplified the principles of benevolence, reform, and equality 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.

This essay analyzes Bluford’s initial reporting on her effort to enter MU, her commentary on her failed civil lawsuit in May 1942, and the announcement of the newspaper’s fundraising campaign for African American education in the same month. The facts of Bluford’s three-year crusade to enroll at MU are known: she repeatedly tried to enroll at the university and pursued three lawsuits, losing the last one in April 1942. The fact that she and The Call collaborated to influence readers’ responses to the quest for African American educational rights has not been acknowledged or analyzed.

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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.