Women’s Rights and Activism


Athenaeum club pushes for suffrage.

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.

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.”

Donnelly Garment Company interior

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.

Masie Jones Ragan

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.

Lucile Bluford

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.

News Clip Women Join Protests

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.

"Easy Aces" radio show

Jane and Goodman Ace were partners in creating laughter. The team started a local daily radio show in 1930 that was so successful that it was picked up CBS and NBC and broadcast across the country. Goodman moved on to become one of the highest paid comedy writers for many of the big name stars of radio and television.

Emery, Bird, Thayer and Co. building

For 30 years, Annie Ridenbaugh Bird enjoyed the conventionally genteel life of a prominent merchant’s wife. The last 17 years before she died in 1937 were far less traditional. She served as president of the city’s largest commercial establishment, the Emery, Bird, Thayer & Co. and is believed to be the first Kansas City woman to hold such a position.

Loula Long Combs

According to her father, R. A. Long, Loula Long Combs’ first sentence was, "Please buy me a pony." Breeding and training horses became Loula's life-long passion. She entered her first horse show in 1896 at a fair in Kansas City’s Fairmount Park. For almost 65 years, her horses won blue ribbons in shows throughout this country, Canada, and England. She won the most ribbons at Kansas City’s American Royal, where she made a yearly appearance well into her 80s. To audiences’ delight, Loula always wore a spectacular hat as she drove her carriage around the show ring.

Joan Crawford

Joan Crawford, often called Hollywood’s most durable star, was born Lucille LaSueur to divorced parents in 1908 in San Antonio, Texas. When her mother married Henry Cassin, she was renamed Billie Cassin. Around 1917 her family moved to Kansas City, where Billie attended Scarritt Elementary School before she enrolled in St. Agnes Academy as a work student.

Crttenton Home

Elizabeth Bruce Crogman, who in 1925 became founder of Kansas City’s Florence Home for Colored Girls to house unwed African American women who were pregnant, was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on May 1, 1894. The home functioned as the counterpart to similar organizations that served the area's white residents but denied care to young black women.

It is safe to say that during the nearly 50 years she worked there, starting in 1918, Carolyn Doughty was the Women’s City Club. Her role far exceeded her modest title of "executive secretary."

Phoebe Ess

Fondly remembered as the “dean of Missouri club women,” Phoebe Jane Ess was an active and energizing force in Kansas City public life during the many years she lived there (1872-1934). Passionate and outspoken, she brought to bear the courage of her convictions on a variety of contentious issues of the day. Ess was a staunch advocate of women’s suffrage, a strong supporter of Prohibition, and she demanded educational reforms for the children in her community. She also worked alongside other like-minded activists to root out corruption in local politics at a time when machine rule dominated Kansas City. Over the course of her long life, Phoebe Jane Ess worked tirelessly to improve the lives of Kansas Citians. Notably, she was a model reformer at a time when women’s sphere of influence generally did not reach beyond the walls of the home. 

Mary Tiera Farrow

On November 8, 1917, Mary Tiera Farrow and 20 other female lawyers formed the Women's Bar Association of Kansas City. Farrow was one of the few women in the United States who successfully practiced law in the early 1900s, overcoming the discrimination women faced in the legal field and society generally. Having been denied the professional benefits of any existing bar association, she led a group of 20 women in establishing their own bar in Kansas City. It was just one of many pioneering acts that Farrow undertook for herself and for women's rights at large.

Charles Fillmore
Unity—the name came to Charles suddenly during a meditative state in 1891—was neither a church nor sect, but carried a message that physical health and material wealth were the natural states intended for humanity by God. The Fillmores encouraged unity of all denominations, of science and religion, of God and man, and of people with one another. During the 1920s, the Fillmores extended the reach of their message via the new medium of radio, eventually purchasing station WOQ. Unity also began acquiring land southeast of Kansas City, near Lee’s Summit, Missouri; the tract came to encompass some 1400 acres, later incorporated as a village.
Ada Crogman Franklin

Ada Crogman's father, one of the distinguished scholars of the African American race, was professor of Latin and Greek at Clark University for 37 years and then became the first African American president of Clark, serving for seven years. Mrs. Franklin, along with her two sisters and five brothers, grew up on the Clark University campus. She became nationally known for her production, "Milestones of a Race," which was presented in cities throughout the country. She married Chester Arthur Franklin, owner of The Call newspaper, in 1925 and began to devote her talent and her interest to the paper and the Kansas City community.

Carolyn Farwell Fuller

When Carolyn Farwell Fuller first entered the education field, it was as a schoolteacher—the highest position a female educator could attain in the early 1900s. She surely couldn’t have predicted her groundbreaking role as the first female to serve on the Kansas City Board of Education.

Dorothy Gallagher and children at the Guadalupe Center

Dorothy Gallagher was born on January 8, 1894, to a wealthy Kansas City family. Not content to live quietly in affluence, Gallagher gained interest in a Catholic women’s group called the Agnes Ward Amberg Club, which carried out social work in Mexican communities in the west side of the city.

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.

Hale House for the Blind, 1930

Catherine Hale was determined that her brother would not miss out on everyday pleasures simply because he was blind. She taught him to play cards and dance well. When he joined The Workers for the Blind of Greater Kansas City in 1911, she accompanied him to his meetings. Her lifelong devotion to helping Kansas City’s blind citizens had begun.

Joyce C. Hall

J.C. Hall’s story is a Kansas City legend. The young man arrived here from Nebraska with a box of postcards to sell. With good ideas, good luck, and hard work, his business grew to become Hallmark Cards, the world’s largest greeting card company.

Linda Hall Library

The wife of Herbert F. Hall, one of the country’s leading grain exporters, lived in a 1913 mansion on 15 acres south of the Plaza. Their home, named Linda Hall, was designed by the architect who designed the Nelson Gallery of Art and Mary Atkins Museum of Fine Art. When she died in 1938, Hall willed $50,000 to Children’s Mercy Hospital and established an endowment for a free, specialized library.

Jean Harlow

Jean Harlow captured movie audiences’ hearts from her first major film. Her acting, a combination of sensuousness, vulnerability, and even naiveté made her a star. Although she died in 1937, she remains a legend and a film icon.

Opal Hill did not take up golf until she was in her early 30s, but she went on to become a golfing legend nationally and one of the greatest names associated with the sport in Kansas City. Her tough, competitive nature during tournament play and her gracious, even-tempered manner off the course combined to make Hill one of the most popular figures in women’s golf in the 1920s and ‘30s.

Pembroke Hill Country Day School

As one school historian has written, the Kansas City Country Day School opened its doors in a September 28, 1910, ceremony resembling "a cross between the launching of a crusade and an old-time Fourth of July celebration." It was the culmination of much hard work on the part of Vassie James Ward Hill, a trailblazing female political leader whose progressive vision led to the founding of Country Day and its sister institution, the Sunset Hill School, today known collectively as Pembroke Hill.

Mary Rockwell Hook home at 4940 Summit Street

Mary Rockwell Hook once described a troubling scene from an early period in her architectural career. In Paris, where she was a student at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, she was forced to run to a waiting taxi and dive in to avoid being drenched by a mob of disgruntled male students pursuing her with water buckets. While confronting gender bias was not a new experience for her—she had also been the sole female architecture student during a previous year at the Art Institute of Chicago—her male counterparts in Paris were clearly unable to accept a talented, un-intimidated female in their midst. She would soon return to the United States, launch a prolific career as one of Kansas City’s most innovative architects, and come to be remembered as a pioneer among professional women.

Hudson Oil station

A world traveler and self-made millionaire, Mary Hudson was one of only three women on Forbes Magazine's list of 400 richest Americans. As an oil industry leader listed in the World's Who's Who of Women, she made international news when her empire collapsed. Hudson’s career began in 1933, as a 21-year-old widow with an infant to support. She borrowed $200 to buy a gas station in Kansas City, which led to a prominent role in a man's industry. An in-your-face independent distributor, among the first to offer no-frills, self-service gasoline, she co-founded a national organization for independent dealers.


Rose Mindlin's handmade hats were so admired that other women begged her to make theirs. When she could no longer keep up with requests, she hired help and opened a shop near 12th and Troost. That was a risky venture in 1904, but Rose was a risk-taker. Besides, she could work and keep an eye on her three boys, since the family lived at the back of the store. By 1918 she opened a new store at 3221 Troost. In 1922 her son, Harold, became her partner. By the time her husband died in 1923, her business was established enough that it provided job security for her three sons. The store expanded its line to include clothing, and reportedly became the first store outside downtown to offer stylish ready-to-wear women's apparel.

Irwin Krikwood

After William Rockhill Nelson's death in 1915, Laura and Irwin ran the Kansas City Star with the help of the Nelson-trained staff. Under her leadership, the Star printed its first photograph and first comics, both banned by her father, and began WDAF Radio as part of the Star empire.

She is said to have belonged to the "silk stocking set," but Della Cochrane Lamb spent most of her life working with those less fortunate than herself. Della began channeling her abundant energy and talent into community service in 1897, when she was still a teenager. That year, Melrose Methodist Church Auxiliary opened a day nursery on Fifth Street. One of the first day care centers in Kansas City, it looked after the children of immigrant north side families so that their mothers could work. When the Fifth Street nursery evolved into the Institutional Neighborhood House in1906, Lamb became president of its board of directors. She remained president for 27 years.

Julia Lee

Julia Lee was known for her husky voice, her straightforward piano style, and the easy, but heartfelt way she sang. In a professional singing career that spanned four decades, Lee built a national reputation as one of the great female blues singers of all time.

Dorothy Lillard began teaching in the Kansas City public schools at the age of 18. When she retired 50 years later, she had traveled the world, taught school in four countries, and become something of a Kansas City legend. Lillard began her teaching career in 1927. Her first assignment was with a first-grade class at the W. W. Yates Elementary School at 13th and Lydia streets. She quickly earned a reputation as an exacting instructor, a stickler for excellence, and a teacher who insisted that parents take responsibility for raising their children. As a result, she made a lifelong impression on generations of young Kansas Citians.

Nelle Peters

Nelle Nichols Peters is known as a pathbreaking female architect, designer of nearly 1,000 local buildings, and one of the most prolific architects in Kansas City during the 1920s. Despite the fact that many of these buildings still occupy prominent locations, especially near the Country Club Plaza, Nelle Peters remains a relatively obscure figure in Kansas City history.

Sally Rand

Rand used her dancing talent and flamboyant style appearing as an exotic dancer in burlesque houses across the country. After her appearance at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago, her name became a household word.

Sarah Rector

Sarah Rector, Kansas City’s “First Black Millionairess,” was known in Kansas City for her “fairy tale” ascension to money and fame, fine living at Rector Mansion, and reported entertaining of African American celebrities such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Joe Louis, and Jack Johnson. Rector’s story, however, is a complex narrative that stands at the intersections of race, indigenous sovereignty, children’s rights, and the oil boom in Oklahoma; it requires wading through questionable news reports and legal statutes while examining the shifting status of freedmen during the early part of the 20th century.

Nell Donnelly Reed

Born Ellen Quinlan in Parsons, Kansas, Nell Donnelly Reed was the founding owner of the Donnelly Garment Company. The women’s clothing line became a national sensation. Reed’s was the first company to mass produce affordable and attractive ready-to-wear clothing for women. She was one of many people to capitalize on the garment industry’s move to Kansas City and other spaces outside of the Northeast. Reed was a talented designer who envisioned the mass production of flattering, beautiful clothing for working class women. After selling a few of her new designs to local stores, Reed decided to open her own shop. This was the start of the Donnelly Garment Company, officially founded in 1916. The innovation and glamour of Reed’s professional and social life in Kansas City, especially after her advantageous marriage to former-Senator James A. Reed, is clouded by accusations of her abusive managerial practices and her clashes with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union.

Nell Donnelly Reed
Urged by neighbors, who were wearing her creations, she took a sample to a downtown store. When she delivered 218 finished dresses, they sold out in a few hours. That was the beginning of Donnelly Garment Company which grew to $3.5 million in sales and l,000 employees by 1931
Children's Mercy Hospital

As a clinician, Richardson was known for her total commitment to her patients. Technically, she was among the region's most skilled surgeons in the area of facial reconstruction for children born with cleft lip and palate. But she also emphasized the importance of sympathy and understanding, tending to her patients' emotional needs as well as physical ailments. To this end she encouraged hospital designs integrating light and fresh air, filled the wards with toys, and recruited comedians and circus clowns visiting Kansas City to perform for the children.

Vivian’s characteristic assertiveness led to her activism with the “clean sweep” reform movement of the late 1930s in which a non-partisan coalition triumphed over the corrupt but crumbling Pendergast political machine in city elections. After several years working as an office manager for a telegraph company, she took a job in the Kansas City office of the Missouri Division of Vocational Rehabilitation.

Clara Stover

The Stovers, beginning with their early farming venture in Canada, had been willing to dream big and risk bitter failure. After one fantastic near miss, they founded the candy company that endures today as a household name for quality sweets.

Marion Talley

Marion Talley was hailed as a musical prodigy at eight years old. Her astounding voice brought her early notoriety. But like many who gained fame at the loss of childhood, the pressure of being in the public eye would later prompt her to live in seclusion. She died in oblivion and her death went unnoticed by the music world.

A glimpse into the history of education in Kansas City would not be complete without a profile of Hazel Browne Williams, the first African American fulltime professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Hazel Browne, a native Kansas Citian, was born on February 9, 1907, the only child of John and Effie Moten Browne. She graduated from Lincoln High School in 1923, where she earned the honor of serving as the first woman sponsor major of the school's Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC). Her reputation for breaking barriers would continue throughout the rest of her life.

Bathing a child at Florence Home

Elizabeth Bruce Crogman, who in 1925 founded Kansas City’s Florence Home for Colored Girls (which housed unwed African American women who were pregnant), was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on May 1, 1894. The home functioned as the counterpart to similar organizations that served the area's white residents but denied care to young black women.

The Missouri Woman magazine, 1916

The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed by Congress on June 4, 1919, and was ratified and became law on August 18, 1920. This amendment granted voting rights to, in theory, all women in the United States. But the push for women’s suffrage was not solely a northeastern or coastal interest. It was fueled by individuals and organizations across the United States, with many states passing suffrage prior to the 19th Amendment.